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  1. Florida Politics

Hard feelings, negative ads build up between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — If Marco Rubio fails to win the Republican presidential nomination, count on him to place much of the blame on his old friend and mentor Jeb Bush and Bush's political team.

"I think they kind of felt that maybe things haven't gone the way they planned, and so taking me down is what they're going to do," Rubio said on Fox News on Tuesday night about Jeb Bush's super PAC political committee, which so far has spent at least $20 million on TV ads critical of Rubio. "You know, when I got into this race, a lot of people in the establishment told me that if I ran, it wasn't my turn and they would do what they needed to stop me. So obviously, this is a part of that."

Bush essentially answered his former protege's charge Saturday night in Merrimack, N.H., when a voter asked about all the negative ads coming from his super PAC, Right to Rise.

"Time to man up," said the former governor, sounding not the least bit sorry about the ads coming from that independently run committee, which he said seemed "pretty tame" to him.

"Wait till you see the Hillary Clinton attack ad hit machine come on. You're going to see attack ads that are going to scrape the bark off the Republican nominee. … As they say in North Florida, it's going to be butt-ugly," Bush said.

The fellow Miami-Dade residents have been on a collision course as soon as they both decided to run for president last spring. As Monday's Iowa caucuses loom, the primary has come down to a contest to see which mainstream conservative candidate — Rubio, Bush, John Kasich or Chris Christie — can emerge to be the alternative to front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Each one wants the rest to drop out as soon as possible, and at this point Bush and Rubio are the only ones with the resources and campaign infrastructure to continue campaigning, regardless of their showing in Iowa and then in New Hampshire on Feb. 9.

As Rubio and his campaign aides cast him as a victim of Right to Rise's negative ads — even as his super PAC funds its own negative ads targeting fellow Republicans — they are receiving sympathetic receptions from some conservative news outlets and pundits. Much of the party establishment fears Trump or Cruz as the nominee and sees Rubio as the strongest alternative.

"There will be plenty of blame to go around if Trump ends up as the Republican nominee, but Right to Rise will have earned a prominent chapter in those histories: cable and network television gave Trump endless hours of free publicity; influential conservative voices explained away his liberalism, excused his excesses, and legitimized his crazy; and Right to Rise, like an all-pro right guard, helped clear a path for Trump by blocking several of his would-be tacklers, in particular Marco Rubio," Stephen Hayes wrote in the Weekly Standard this week.

Todd Harris, a senior Rubio adviser who used to work for Gov. Bush and for Right to Rise leader Mike Murphy, blamed the super PAC when asked about Rubio showing little sign of progress in recent Iowa and New Hampshire polls despite consistently strong debate performances.

"$25 million in false advertising from Jeb Bush's super PAC is certainly not helping," said Harris, insisting that the campaign remains confident about its progress and that the level of excitement in Iowa is growing every day.

Some Bush critics have accused the governor's allies of being so bitter about Rubio challenging him, that if Jeb can't win the nomination they are intent on ensuring Rubio can't either. Harris did not dispute that theory about his old boss.

"The facts are that a third of their advertising have been spent against Marco," Harris said. "They're spending a million dollars a day doing it, and it sort of speaks for itself."

Rubio and his campaign team are especially angry about the new Right to Rise TV ad running in Iowa that highlights how Rubio, as a Florida legislative leader, charged thousands of dollars in personal expenses — movie tickets, home repairs, gas — on a state party credit card that was supposed to be used for political expenses.

The campaigns are not allowed to coordinate with the super PACs helping them, but the Bush campaign tracks ad spending and says that at least in New Hampshire, Right to Rise has spent about $3.7 million on ads critical of Rubio, while the super PAC helping Rubio has spent about $1 million in New Hampshire against Bush and $4.8 million against Christie.

"Rubio's super PAC has been engaged in as much negative advertising against Christie and Jeb in New Hampshire as he's received," said Bush campaign spokesman Tim Miller. "So it seems to me they are looking for excuses to justify his lack of support in New Hampshire, but the facts don't back them up."

Paul Lindsay of Right to Rise also scoffed at the suggestion that Bush and his allies were helping Trump win the nomination.

"We are the only organization that has spent a considerable sum against Donald Trump, and Jeb Bush is the only candidate who has had the guts to take him on," Lindsay said. "When it comes to Trump, Marco Rubio has chosen the path he has taken most of his life by passively sitting on the sidelines. The whining sense of entitlement from Marco and his campaign these days only serves to reinforce the message in our TV ads that he is completely unprepared to be commander-in-chief."

Contact Adam. C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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