Marco Rubio draws enthusiastic crowd in the Villages, foreshadows collision with Jeb Bush

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks during a political rally at the Villages on Monday.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks during a political rally at the Villages on Monday.
Published Sept. 29, 2015

THE VILLAGES — When Marco Rubio launched his presidential campaign in the spring, a lot of people wondered how he would ever emerge from the shadow of his mentor, Jeb Bush.

On Monday, as Sen. Rubio campaigned to an overflow crowd in a sprawling Central Florida development loaded with tens of thousands of relatively new Florida Republicans, the more immediate question was how Bush might escape the shadow of Rubio.

"Bush was fine as governor but he just doesn't come across as authoritative, like Marco Rubio does," said Pat McKay, who moved to the Villages 10 years ago from Philadelphia.

This booming, overwhelmingly Republican stronghold of more than 100,000 residents spreads across 32 square miles of Sumter, Lake and Marion counties. Bush spent plenty of time campaigning here in the area's early years, but he left office nearly 10 years ago.

"Jeb doesn't seem to have any energy, no excitement," said Sid Sack, who retired to the Villages a year ago from Washington state, while waiting for Rubio to show up.

"He seems kind of like a marshmallow," he said of Bush, a contrast given that Bush was known as perhaps the most energetic and ambitious governor in modern Florida history.

"We need somebody new. I like Rubio because he's young," agreed his wife, Billie, who also likes Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump.

Rubio drew more than 500 people to a big meeting space and two overflow rooms, an appearance that underscored one of the biggest challenges facing Bush's presidential campaign: Countless Republicans know little about Bush beyond his last name, and that includes his home state with its ever-changing electorate

Bush, 62, and Rubio, 44, are longtime friends and allies, who ultimately are on a collision course in the crowded Republican primary. Rubio never mentioned Bush by name during his standard stump speech Monday, but he might as well have.

"We cannot simply promote the next person in line or the most familiar name," Rubio said, warning that without new leadership the country may leave the next generation with less opportunity than had been left for the current generation.

He talked broadly about cutting regulations, expanding domestic energy production, beefing up the military, repealing Obamacare and putting greater emphasis on promoting vocational education.

Later reporters asked him about Bush.

"Jeb is my friend," he said. "I have tremendous respect for him as a person and for what he did for Florida as governor. I'm not running against anyone for president. I'm running for president because I honestly believe our party and our country need to turn the page and allow a new generation of leadership with new ideas to guide us toward the 21st century."

That new generation pitch appeared to hit the right note with the white-haired Republicans at the Villages, many of them questioning Bush's ability to win the general election and calling Rubio a far stronger candidate.

Carl Blankenship, a former state trooper who retired to the Villages from West Virginia nearly four years ago, said he became fired up over Rubio after watching the second presidential debate. He appreciates Rubio's intellect, experience and style.

"I understand Jeb Bush did a good job for Florida as governor, and he is probably very capable. But I think we need a new voice," Blankenship said. "It's time that a younger generation step forward to take up the reins, and I think Sen. Rubio is the perfect person."

Bush has been struggling in national and early state polls this summer, as many Republicans have embraced political outsiders such as Trump, Ben Carson and Fiorina. (Carson plans a visit to the Villages on Nov. 2.)

Rubio, meanwhile, has been gaining ground thanks to well-received debate performances and as a former Florida House speaker-turned-U.S. senator, he has the potential to appeal both to establishment Republicans and to Republicans skeptical of veteran politicians.

"Never, certainly in my lifetime and probably in yours as well, has there ever been a government more out of touch with its people than our federal government is today," Rubio said, sounding more like a political outsider than someone serving in the U.S. Senate.

As Bush's campaign team likes to point out, polls don't mean much this far out from the voting. But the trend lines still look far better for Rubio than Bush. The latest polls of Republicans nationally, in Iowa and New Hampshire, show Rubio ahead of Bush, and one Florida poll last week showed him ahead of Bush.

Rubio, however, appears to be just now building an organization, and his campaign events tend to be at places with a crowd already organized rather than one the campaign mobilized. The comparison between Bush's last events in Central Florida — a series of rallies and town hall meetings organized by the Bush team — and Rubio's Monday — a rally at the Villages where even the dullest Republican can expect a big crowd — is indicative of their infrastructures.

Rubio made a point of reminding the crowd that almost no one gave him a chance to win a U.S. Senate seat when he decided to challenge Charlie Crist in 2010, when Crist was still a popular, moderate Republican.

"The entire Republican leadership in the Senate and in the party said not only are we not going to help you, we are going to help your opponent," Rubio recounted. "In some way the same thing's happening now. When I decided to run for president, 'Oh Marco, you need to wait your turn.' I didn't know there was a line."

The crowd cheered.

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.