Florida Kingmaker

Each time Mitt Romney's campaign enters a tailspin, the former Massachusetts governor rolls out a major endorsement to right his establishment-approved ship. He announced Chris Christie's endorsement on the eve of a debate when Herman Cain was cresting in the polls, and last week he brought Bob McDonnell out to South Carolina in a last-ditch effort to rebut Gingrich's rising tide. Almost the entire roster of would-be vice-presidential nominees has been at Romney's beck and call.

As Romney flounders in the latest Florida polls, now would be a prime opportunity for another red-carpet rollout of a big-name local surrogate. But Jeb Bush pulled back from an endorsement after apparently being on the edge of backing Romney. And the most pivotal potential supporter in the Sunshine State has split loyalties between Gingrich and Romney.

Freshman Senator Marco Rubio could be the rare single endorsement that creates a discernable shift in election outcomes. He is one of the few politicians whose influence carries equal credibility among the competing wings of the modern Republican Party. He successfully challenged moderate favorite Charlie Crist in the 2010 Senate primary, securing a spot as a symbol of the Tea Party, but has won plaudits among Washington elites who see the young Hispanic senator with an inspirational life story as the future of the party.

His opinion carries particular weight among Florida Republicans who love their local boy done good. When Public Policy Polling sampled that group earlier this month, 40 percent of likely primary voters said that they would be more inclined to back a presidential candidate if he carried the Marco seal of approval. Yet Rubio has, to date, remained neutral and indicated that he won't interject his opinion before Florida votes next week.

The general consensus earlier in the year was that Rubio would eventually endorse Romney. Rubio's staff is littered with former associates of previous Romney campaigns, including Cesar Conda, a 2008 policy adviser for Romney who is now Rubio's chief of staff. "The overlap between Romney and Rubio staffers could only fuel party buzz about a potential Romney-Rubio ticket," Politico's Scot Wong wrote in October. And as much as Rubio has attempted to downplay his desire for the vice presidency, his history in Florida state politics is one of a constant striver, with his eye always on the next political prize; it would be logical for him to throw his lot behind the preordained candidate to increase his sway in a future White House administration, even if he were to turn down the second slot on the ticket.

But Rubio's ties to Romney’s challenger run even deeper. In 2006, Rubio ascended to the speakership of the Florida House and marked his term by creating a list of 100 policy objectives that would define his two-year term. Rubio later collected these goals into a book, which featured a blurb from Newt Gingrich on the back cover. "This is as smart an idea as I have seen anywhere in government. … I can't tell you how impressed I am," Gingrich wrote, laying the praise on thick for a then-unknown state politician. "This is the beginning of a very, very important thing."

Indeed, while Rubio's D.C. office may be teeming with Romney's old hands, Newt 2012 is stocked with Rubio associates. Last month, Gingrich hired former Rubio campaign chief Jose Mallea to manage his Florida presidential campaign.  Then there’s Representative David Rivera, one of Rubio's oldest political allies—the two even shared a home when they both served in Tallahassee. Gingrich is one of the few politicians who has not shunned the scandal-plagued congressman, and earlier this month, Rivera endorsed Gingrich.

All of the presidential contenders kowtow to the GOP's new chosen son, but few have been as effusive as Gingrich. "Now, I'm not saying anything specific about a choice to be made next summer, but I have to tell you, when you imagine Marco Rubio debating Joe Biden, I mean the contrast between American commonsense and liberal nonsense would be so big," Gingrich told a Florida gathering of Republicans in late September. "I guarantee you, he will be on the shortlist for anybody who becomes our nominee, because he is such a great, natural talent." Gingrich subtly made his case to the press this week that he is the Marco candidate in 2012. "We discovered last night that Mitt Romney has picked up Charlie Crist's campaign people," Gingrich said. "That sort of tells you everything you needed to know about this contest."

Perhaps most important, Gingrich and Rubio are well attuned on ideology. While Romney has played his xenophobe card at every turn, Gingrich has struck a more kind-hearted posture. Neither Gingrich nor Rubio support comprehensive immigration reform that would allow millions of undocumented workers to remain in the country, but they don't have a zeal for splitting up families. And though establishment Republicans have accepted Rubio, he is much more of a conservative bomb thrower à la Gingrich. Rubio was one of the few senators to vote against the bipartisan accord to end the debt-ceiling impasse, and the Heritage Foundation rates Rubio as the third most conservative senator.

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