- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) - Leading Republican presidential prospects faced off at an event Tuesday in battleground Florida, a state that could prove pivotal to the Florida heavyweights seeking the nomination, not to mention any rival who manages to win here instead.

Jeb Bush, a former two-term Florida governor, and Florida’s junior Sen. Marco Rubio, were the home-state stars at a GOP economic gathering that drew a half dozen White House hopefuls to a Disney World convention center - Rubio, tied up by Senate business, appeared by video.

They are so heavily favored in the March 15 primary next year that some rivals are considering bypassing Florida’s race. But they showed up Tuesday.

Rubio offered the audience an indirect but unmistakable barb at Bush, who spoke later.

“While our economy is transforming, our policies and our leaders are not,” Rubio said. “Our outdated leaders continue to cling to outdated ideas.”

The 44-year-old Republican did not name Bush or Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. But the implication was clear in a 2016 campaign that contrasts a group of younger political leaders and the two older figures whose families have dominated national politics for decades.

“It’s kind of hard to imagine that my good friend, Marco, would be critical of his good friend, Jeb,” a sarcastic Bush said with a smile after acknowledging to reporters there would be “elbows and knees” thrown in the race. “This isn’t Tiddlywinks we’re playing.”

He continued: “If I’m a candidate, I want to be the guy to beat.”

Tuesday’s speaking program also featured former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Despite their appearance, many campaigns are weighing whether to spend time and money in the state Bush and Rubio call home.

Other than the Florida pair, none who showed up Tuesday has begun to establish teams of operatives and activists on the ground in Florida. Many are already working to temper expectations, while realizing they cannot ignore Florida altogether - both for its abundance of wealthy donors and its status as a must-win swing state in the general election.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker tried to walk back recent comments he might avoid the Florida primary should he run for president.

Bush and Rubio “certainly would have a competitive advantage,” he said. “But if I didn’t think I could compete, I wouldn’t be here today.” He ticked off a list of personal and political connections to Florida.

Florida could be decisive in the Republican race.

The Florida Legislature recently moved the state’s primary to March 15, the earliest date the Republican National Committee allows for states that award all of their delegates to the primary winner. States voting before then must award their delegates proportionately.

The shift was seen as a move to help Bush or Rubio, one of whom would claim the state’s trove of delegates by winning Florida.

Even so, with other states voting first, nearly half of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination will have already been awarded by the time Florida voters weigh in. That makes Florida particularly important for Bush or Rubio.

Other contenders, Perry and Huckabee among them, are shaping a strategy focused on early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina, hoping to build momentum that could translate down the line in Florida.

Bush and Rubio are by no means guaranteed a Florida victory. They face strong competition in the earlier states. And Brian Ballard, who led Florida fundraising for John McCain and Mitt Romney, said “a lot of guys are in striking distance” of Rubio and Bush even in Florida.

The demands of competing in Florida will require tough choices by the larger field. It costs about $1.5 million a week to run statewide television ads, far more than in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.

“Florida’s an expensive state, it’s a winner-take-all state, and how much of your resources you dedicate to it is a nightmare decision for the operatives and those who advise the candidates,” said former Florida GOP chairman Al Cardenas, now a Bush supporter.

Yet, as Tuesday’s event showed, top-tier candidates will not ignore Florida altogether in the coming months.

Huckabee reminded Florida voters that Bush and Rubio aren’t the only Florida residents in the race. The former Arkansas governor now lives in the Panhandle, and referred to himself as “someone who is like a lot of other people in America - now a Floridian.”

He also heaped praised on Gov. Rick Scott’s economic leadership, acknowledging an ulterior motive: “Anything I could do to suck up to him and his donors by God I’m going to do,” Huckabee said with a smile.

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