MIAMI (AP) — Donald Trump is a part-time Florida resident — and a full-time problem for the home-state senator running for president, Marco Rubio.
Rubio is counting on Florida to reshape the Republican contest that Trump has dominated by winning three of the first four states to vote. A loss in Florida on March 15 could doom Rubio's chances, his campaign acknowledges.
"We're going to be fine in Florida," Rubio said aboard his campaign plane this week. "I feel very good. We know how to run and win campaigns in Florida."
Trump has a different assessment. When he spoke at a mega-rally last month in Pensacola, he expressed surprise at how well he seemed to be doing in the state.
This week, Florida has sent a wave of support toward Rubio, replete with endorsements from politicians and campaign cash from donors. And Rubio directly took on Trump in Thursday's debate in Houston, a strong performance that had his senior strategist Todd Harris declaring afterward: "We are going to win Florida. Take it to the bank."
The 44-year-old former speaker of the Florida legislative body was elected senator in 2010. He enjoys high favorability ratings, and people know his name. With Jeb Bush, the ex-governor, out of the way, it seems clear, at last, that Rubio has the state's inside track.
One problem: Florida loves political outsiders.
This state twice elected as governor a wealthy businessman who mostly paid for his own campaign. Sound familiar?
Florida Gov. Rick Scott thinks so. He penned a glowing column last month in USA Today that compared Trump favorably to himself. "Voters have been choosing new ideas and new energy over the old formula of sheer time served in political office," he wrote.
Orlando businessman KC Craichy said he never imagined he'd support someone as "overbearing" and "brash" as Trump. Now he sees those as "necessary characteristics for the next president to shake up the status quo" and plans to vote for Trump.
Trump, whose beachfront palace Mar-a-Lago serves as a second home, seemed to identify his political opportunity here early on.
Last fall, the Trump campaign hired Karen Giorno, a GOP strategist who has worked with Scott, and opened an office in Sarasota. The campaign employs at least 10 people in the state and has been collecting supporter information at large rallies like the one in Pensacola.
"We have, by far, the best campaign organization in state of Florida," said Joe Gruters, Trump's Florida co-chairman and a vice chairman of Florida's Republican Party. "Most of the candidates have bypassed Florida because it is so big and expensive. Mr. Trump knew that he would be able to participate."
Trump is largely paying for his own campaign. Rubio is raising money the traditional — and time-consuming — way and only now beginning to expand his Florida operation, led by two longtime political hands.
The campaign recently opened its first Florida offices, and Rubio plans multiple stops in the state. Rubio allies also are eager to remind Floridians that in Rubio's 2010 Senate race, Trump supported Charlie Crist, who has since become a Democrat.
Yet these late moves — and the fact that Trump has been weakest with those who decided in the final stretch, according to exit polls — face another Florida reality: Residents have already begun voting.
More than 850,000 GOP ballots were mailed weeks ago in absentee voting. Officials project that slightly more than half of the state's Republican voters will have cast ballots before the primary. Early in-person voting begins in some counties as soon as Monday.
Florida politics-watchers have been surprised that the candidates have paid little early attention to the state. Backers of the previous GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, began advertising there a full month before the election; as of Thursday, Florida had seen almost no presidential commercials this time around. An outside group backing Rubio, called Conservative Solutions PAC, is beginning Florida ads on Friday. A commercial that first hit the airwaves in Jacksonville says Trump "knows nothing" about foreign policy.
Rich Heffley, a Florida Republican strategist who had been helping Bush in this election, said successful presidential campaigns have typically moved into Florida early and stayed "straight on through the general election."
"It frustrates me that more people are not focusing on Florida for the long run," Heffley said.
Whoever emerges as the GOP nominee, Florida will star again in the general election. It's the nation's biggest swing state, with a mix of Republican and Democrats and a diverse population, like "five states in one," Heffley said.
Trump is showing power in the state. A new Quinnipiac University poll, conducted after Bush pulled out, found the businessman with a 16-point lead over Rubio.
"There is no doubt that Donald Trump will make a strong showing in Florida," said Fort Lauderdale attorney Ed Pozzuoli, who had supported Bush. "And whether Marco Rubio can catch him remains to be seen."
Bykowicz reported from Houston. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples and Emily Swanson contributed to this report.
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