Marco Rubio's campaign on Thursday fanned a juicy storyline: He has more cash on hand than Jeb Bush, a thrifty David vs. a free-spending Goliath.
"Thanks to smart budgeting and fiscal discipline, Marco Rubio for president started October with more money in the bank than Jeb Bush for president and most other campaigns," Rubio's campaign said in a news release that went out just as Bush's figures became public.
But Rubio pumped up his numbers by including $1.2 million that can be used only if he wins the Republican nomination. In fact, he and Bush are roughly even, though Bush has been spending more. Rubio has $9.7 million cash on hand versus Bush's $10 million.
"Lying about budgets. Guess Marco picked up something in the Senate," Bush spokesman Tim Miller tweeted Friday.
The episode is the most vivid example of rising antagonism between the Floridians, destined to get nastier and more overt as Bush and Rubio compete in the same lane for the GOP presidential nomination. The hostility is especially notable because the two are friends and come from a state that is crucial for Republicans to take the White House.
Eclipsed in the polls by the younger and more charismatic Rubio, Bush has gotten more vocal about criticizing Rubio's lack of legislative accomplishment and missing votes in the U.S. Senate.
He suggests Rubio could be another Barack Obama, the last senator to jump to the White House. "We had a president who came in and said the same kind of thing — new and improved, hope and change — and he didn't have the leadership skills to fix things," Bush said on CNN.
"I'm a proven leader," Bush went on. "I disrupted the old order in Tallahassee. I relied on people like Marco Rubio and many others to follow my leadership and we moved the needle."
For his part, Rubio is moving aggressively to draw donors away from Bush and continues to portray his 62-year-old mentor as outdated.
"The issues we confronted in Florida 15 years ago are nothing like the issues the country's confronting now," Rubio, 44, said on Fox News last week.
The conflict makes supporters in Florida uneasy, many of them wishing the Bush-Rubio dynamic had never materialized. But Rubio pushed forward and is trying to seize an electorate hungry for a new face and ideas.
"This is such an important race that they are both going to express some feelings they may or may not want to," said Bill Bunting, a Republican activist in Pasco County who is supporting Bush but said he would back Rubio "100 percent" if he wins the primary.
"It's just politics," Bunting added. "But they also know we can't have that infighting. It's not going to help either one in Florida and it could help Donald Trump."
Rubio had a fairly lackluster fundraising quarter, posting $5.7 million, while Bush came in second among all GOP candidates with $13.4 million.
But the cash on hand — the issue that led to the sharp words — tells a different story. Rubio's boastful and carefully timed news release mentioned $11 million but failed to point out that about $1.2 million is reserved for the general election. Bush's team, stung by Rubio's victory lap news release, began to push back immediately.
"Jeb 2016 has more than $10 million in primary cash on hand. While other campaigns are hiding the ball, that's where we stand," campaign manager Danny Diaz wrote on Twitter.
Bush was supposed to be a fundraising juggernaut, overpowering the field. Instead he saw his numbers fall, taking in just $2 million more in the last three months than he had raised in two weeks after launching his campaign in June.
As Bush's team talked of cutting salaries and other expenses, Rubio's team saw an opportunity. The fundraising news release projected fiscal responsibility, noting office furniture purchased from Craigslist and flights booked on Southwest. He posted a photo on Instagram with the caption: "Flying commercial to Pittsburgh late tonight to save money. Thank you for your support!"
In Florida, Bush continues to win the money race, taking in $2.1 million, more than any candidate, including Democrat Hillary Clinton, who got about $1 million. Rubio was third with roughly $690,000. Fellow Republican Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who lives in West Palm Beach, pulled $564,000 out of the state as part of his $20 million haul for the quarter, which ran from July through September.
Florida's primary is March 15 and promises to be a blockbuster if Rubio and Bush are still in the race. While Rubio has gotten more attention after two solid debate performances, he and Bush remain in the middle of the pack, overshadowed by outsiders such as Trump and Carson.
"They are in the same establishment bracket and there's no front-runner," said Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "I know they each say it's a big party and a big field is welcome, but it doesn't help Bush or Rubio to have the other one in." The fighting, she added, "was inevitable."
Thursday encapsulated the growing war.
As the campaigns sparred over fundraising reports, the New York Times reported on an upcoming Rubio event in Connecticut, long a base of the Bush family. "Marco Rubio moves into Jeb Bush's fund-raising turf," the headline read.
That same day in New York, Jeb Bush Jr., the candidate's son, ripped Rubio during an appearance before college Republicans.
"As a Floridian, I'm a little disappointed, because he's missing, like, 35 percent of his votes," he said, according to Politico. "And it's just, kind of, like, dude, you know, either drop out or do something, but we're paying you to do something, it ain't run for president."
While many initially doubted Rubio could survive with Bush in the race, a growing number of people now feel the opposite.
Contact Alex Leary at email@example.com. Follow @learyreports.