Looking to 2016: Is It Still Either Bush or Rubio?

by Stuart Rothenberg March 12, 2013 · 3:30 PM EDT

As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush continues to do nothing to end speculation that he might run for president in 2016, his Florida ally, Sen. Marco Rubio, twists in the wind.

Florida and national insiders have been operating under the assumption that the two Florida Republicans would never run against each other for the nomination in three years.

Rubio, after all, owes his seat in the Senate to Bush’s quiet backing during the initial stages of 2010 GOP primary, which pitted Rubio against then-Gov. Charlie Crist. And when Crist dropped out of the primary to run as an independent, Bush quickly delivered a full-throated endorsement of Rubio.

But could the Bush-Rubio relationship change over the next year and a half?

Bush, 60, is widely regarded as one of his party’s brightest lights — a successful governor who is smart and politically appealing, and who is both the son and the brother of a former president. On the other hand, Rubio, 41, is still only a rising star in his first term in the Senate.

But Bush has a few liabilities that Rubio doesn’t have.

First, the former governor’s last name is Bush. For some Republicans that is an asset, not a liability. But for others — and for some swing voters — the Bush name doesn’t inspire and energize.

Second, Bush has gotten good ink over the past few years by criticizing his party. But if he does run for the GOP nomination, he’ll have to soften that criticism and, at least to some extent, embrace Republican positions because that is where the grass roots is.

For years, Bush was pushing his party to be more pragmatic on immigration. But now Rubio has embraced that role, giving him a stature he did not have.

And third, Bush is part of the generation of Mitt Romney, while Rubio is an entire generation younger. That contrast should benefit Rubio, especially if Republicans are ready to break from the past.

All of this still leaves an important question: If Bush runs, will Rubio simply defer to him? Or might the new “star” end up outshining the old one?