If you believe one of the few paths to Election Day victory for Donald Trump runs through Florida, two developments this week make the state ever more important to his potential presidential future: the resurgent strength of Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton’s dwindling lead there.
On Tuesday Rubio scored a decisive victory in his primary race, winning 72 percent of the vote and demonstrating that the first-term senator retains a powerful base of support in the state. The big win was doubly impressive because Rubio was not expected to seek re-election after running unsuccessfully for the presidential nomination in the raw and raucous GOP primary.
A year ago he pledged to return to private life if he didn’t win the nomination. “In November of next year, I will either be the president of the United States or a private citizen again, because I have a sense of urgency," Rubio said in October 2015.
But under pressure from a Republican Party desperate to retain control of the Senate, he reversed course and in late June and announced he would seek to retain his seat in the body he once called “dysfunctional,” saying the future of the Supreme Court, the direction of fiscal and economic policies and the fate of the Iran nuclear deal hang in the balance.
“What I am done making is unequivocal statements about anything,” Rubio said. He also pointedly declined to say whether he would serve out his full six-year term if elected. That could leave the door open for another run at the presidency in 2020 or even a cabinet post in a Trump administration should the mogul defeat Clinton.
Of all the 16 GOP primary candidates bested by Trump, perhaps no one got under his skin as much as Rubio, who later said he regretted some of the down-and-dirty comments the two exchanged, both in debates and on the stump. Who can forget Rubio’s below-the-belt jab about Trump’s “little hands,” or Trump repeatedly referring to the not-too-tall Rubio in one debate as “little Marco”?
But schoolyard name-calling aside, the truth for Trump is that even though he handily beat Rubio on his own turf in the Florida primary, he will need him to help deliver in November. That begs the question: What could Trump offer Rubio beyond a choice seat at his inauguration?
One possibility for Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, might be secretary of state; at 45, he would be the youngest person to hold that office in modern times.
First, though, there probably has to be more of a détente between Trump and Rubio, who declined to attend the Republican National Convention or give his former rival a full-throated endorsement. “I do disagree with Donald on a number of things,” he told CNN on Monday. “I disagree with Hillary on everything.”
With the senator having crushed his primary opponent without the presidential nominee in his corner, it looks like Rubio needs Trump a lot less than Trump needs Rubio.
And as Clinton’s edge in Florida drops – the website FiveThirtyEight has her lead down to 3.1 percentage points on Aug. 31, from 6.3 two weeks earlier – vocal and vigorous support for Trump by Rubio could narrow that gap even further.