MILWAUKEE -- GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s super PAC may be chomping at the bit to attack Marco Rubio over his position on abortion, but in an interview with The Huffington Post, the former Florida governor demonstrated his own reluctance to go down that road.
According to a New York Times report, the Bush-aligned super PAC, Right To Rise, is preparing to “spend as much as $20 million to damage Mr. Rubio’s reputation and halt his sudden ascent in the polls.”
The Times reported that the super PAC's top strategist, Mike Murphy, had “recently showed some Republicans a video portraying Mr. Rubio as too extreme on abortion,” calling into question whether the Florida senator’s position on opposing abortion rights without exception, even in cases of rape and incest, would make him anathema to a general electorate next November, should he become the GOP nominee.
But when Bush was twice offered a direct opportunity to challenge Rubio’s position on abortion in an interview with HuffPost last week, he declined to do so.
“Can a Republican nominee win a general election without making [abortion] exceptions?” HuffPost asked Bush. “I mean, you’re for exceptions.”
Bush replied by focusing on his own position on the issue, noting that he was “probably the most pro-life governor in the country,” but he declined to criticize Rubio’s view on opposing exceptions.
Watch the video above, which is an outtake from the latest installment of the HuffPost series '16 And President.
“I don’t know how Marco got to his position,” Bush said. “My position is one that I’ve thought long and hard about and in the public square, I think it’s the right place to be.”
Asked again whether he thought it would be difficult for a Republican nominee who opposes abortion exceptions to make his case in a general election setting, Bush again declined to criticize Rubio, instead emphasizing his own stance.
“Since I don’t have that view, I don’t,” Bush said. “Trying to be engaged in something that I’m really not interested in doing, I’ll tell you what my views are, and I have.”
Bush's reluctance to attack Rubio on abortion suggests that he and his affiliated super PAC -- with whom the Bush campaign cannot coordinate directly -- may not be on the same page strategically.
And with less than three months to go before Republican voters start heading to the polls, that apparent disconnect underscores a broader problem that has vexed Bush’s sprawling campaign and super PAC infrastructure: Right to Rise may be planning a $20 million anti-Rubio ad blitz, but there appears to be precious little material over which it can attack Rubio effectively in the context of a Republican primary.
One politically vulnerable area for Rubio in a primary setting is the support he showed for comprehensive immigration reform in 2012 and 2013 -- an unpopular position among Republican primary voters. But Bush has been, and continues to be, in favor of reforming the immigration system, too.
Dan Pfeiffer, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama, suggested that Bush might nonetheless find some room to damage Rubio on the immigration issue.
"It's just a question of how far Jeb wants to go to hurt Rubio," Pfeiffer said in an email. "Rubio worked hand in hand with Harry Reid to pass Barack Obama's bill to give citizenship to illegals."
But aides to Bush don't see immigration as a viable attack line, in part because it could come back ultimately to haunt his own general election candidacy, in the event that the former governor wins the nomination.
Rubio's stint in the Florida House also offers plenty of opposition research material for well-funded Republican opponents like Bush. But here, too, Bush's own history complicates matters. As governor, he relied on Rubio's support, treated Rubio as a mentee, and described him as a future fixture in Republican politics -- a lawmaker with presidential timber.
"Jeb should attack Trump. You don't get credit for beating up your little brother. You get credit for beating up the bully down the street," said Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney's top strategist in 2012, and a long-time Murphy critic. "Attacking Marco is madness."
Soon after the New York Times published its story on Monday night about the Bush super PAC’s impending attacks on Rubio, the Rubio campaign sought immediately to turn the tables on Bush, who has long promised to campaign “joyfully” without impugning his fellow Republicans.
Rubio’s campaign manager Terry Sullivan sent out a fundraising email just before midnight with the subject line, “This is a Joyful Campaign???”
"Jeb's plan is to spend $20 million dollars to ‘damage Mr. Rubio's reputation,'" Sullivan wrote, asking for a donation of $25 or more to help the Rubio campaign "fight back." "Not just talk about how they differ on the issues but to actively try to destroy Marco's reputation. And they're bragging about that? How is that the kind of 'joyful' campaign that Jeb claimed he wanted to run?!?!"
The Rubio campaign then released a web ad highlighting instances in which Bush has praised Rubio profusely.
As simmering tensions boil over between the two one-time-friends-turned-bitter-Republican-rivals, Rubio appears to be enjoying a far more sympathetic audience online. After the publication of the New York Times piece, conservatives took to Twitter en masse to express their confusion that a Republican candidate could be dinged for being too pro-life during a nomination process.
Meanwhile, the Rubio campaign sought to clarify further his position on abortion exceptions.
Rubio spokesperson Alex Conant pointed to an August interview on NBC's “Meet The Press,” in which Rubio said that protecting the life of the mother was a possible exception that holds “the highest validity.”
“Obviously he's supported legislation with exceptions because he will support any legislation that reduces the # of abortions,” Conant said in an email.
Bush and Rubio will be among the eight Republican candidates squaring off on Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET for the latest debate, which is being hosted by the Fox Business Network.
The two Floridians will be positioned next to each other on stage.
Video produced by Jon Strauss, Samuel Wilkes and Marielle Olentine.
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