Measured but optimistic, Senator Marco Rubio on Thursday stepped into the spotlight he always feared would come too early in the campaign and prepared for a bruising collision with Jeb Bush, his friend, neighbor and onetime political partner in Florida.
But as Mr. Rubio and his supporters tried not to be swept up in the euphoria over his performance in Wednesday night’s debate, the mood among Mr. Bush’s supporters was despondent, with some questioning in private conversations whether the accumulation of three unsteady appearances on the same stage had finally blocked his path to the presidential nomination.
With the attacks on Mr. Rubio landing hard — from Mr. Bush and Democrats, and focused on his spotty voting history, thin record of legislative accomplishment and short time in national office — the senator and his senior advisers moved quickly to woo the establishment wing of the Republican Party that Mr. Bush was once thought to have locked up.
Even as top Rubio advisers expressed confidence, they delivered a plea to their donors and supporters to redouble efforts in fund-raising, which remains the campaign’s most serious obstacle to beating Mr. Bush.
After giving a series of television interviews, Mr. Rubio headed to Chicago for a fund-raiser Thursday night. He will follow up next week with stops in Palm Beach, Fla.; New York; and Connecticut, where he will try to add more to his campaign war chest.
Mr. Rubio is determined, advisers say, not to fall into what they see as a trap being set by Mr. Bush and his “super PAC” to draw him back into Washington and away from the campaign. And he does not want to let the onslaught of criticism for missed Senate votes, which Mr. Bush himself reiterated Thursday, draw him into a spat with the man he looked up to through most of his political career.
He is already having to operate under a more accelerated campaign timeline than he wanted. His ideal campaign plan always predicted a later peak, much closer to when voting in the early states begins in February.
Mr. Rubio said in an interview with Fox News that he had nothing but “tremendous affection and admiration for Jeb,” a line he repeated in similar forms during appearances on several networks throughout the day and that seemed designed to court Bush donors and supporters. He added that he would not alter the tone or substance of his campaign in the wake of Mr. Bush’s attacks: “If he or anyone else wants to change their campaign and what they talk about, they have a right to do that. It’s not going to change our campaign.”
Interactive Feature | Best of the 3rd Republican Debate The Republican presidential candidates faced off for the third time on Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo.
Mr. Bush was far less generous after a showing on Wednesday night that only seemed to magnify his flaws and heighten concerns that his chances for nomination might have slipped away.
In Portsmouth, N.H., where he met with voters on Thursday, Mr. Bush dismissed Mr. Rubio as nothing more than the Republican Party’s Barack Obama, someone with a silver tongue but little achievement in office.
“We’ve had seven years with a divider in chief who was spectacular as a candidate, great speaker, he’s a very, very good politician,” Mr. Bush told Fox News on Thursday. “Marco’s my friend,” he added. “I admire him greatly. He is a gifted politician for sure. But I think we need to focus on who can lead, who can forge consensus, who can solve problems.”
Mr. Bush also said the level of despair that his opponents were attributing to his campaign was greatly exaggerated. “To suggest the campaign is terminal? Come on. That’s pretty funny,” he said.
On a conference call with donors Thursday afternoon led by Mr. Bush, his adviser Sally Bradshaw and his national finance chairman, Woody Johnson, Mr. Bush acknowledged that he had not had a great night. “Debates are not my forte,” he said on the call, according to one listener.
Yet the contributors detected little urgency in his voice, and some were taken aback when Mr. Bush announced that he had an hour free on his schedule and was going to go work out.
Some top Bush supporters said they believed his campaign had forced him into a confrontation with Mr. Rubio during the debate that he never wanted to have. The exchange, over Mr. Rubio’s missed Senate votes, made Mr. Bush appear cowed when Mr. Rubio shot back, “The only reason you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
Vin Weber, a Bush backer, agreed. “I think the real Jeb Bush is positive and optimistic and very policy oriented,” he said. “And to the extent that they try to get him to be something other than that, they’re simply distracting from the real Bush.”
The way forward has become a matter of debate for Mr. Bush, with his donors and advisers split on how to contend with Mr. Rubio. There is little appetite among contributors for a full-scale assault on the senator, who many of them like and would support if Mr. Bush quits.
“There’s a lot of folks, and I’m included, that didn’t think the attack on Marco was the right thing to do, and it kind of put Jeb in a weird spot,” said Brian Ballard, a Florida-based lobbyist and Bush fund-raiser. “It was uncomfortable to watch, and I don’t think it served Jeb’s campaign well.”
But among Mr. Bush’s top aides and his super PAC, there is growing contempt for Mr. Rubio and a desire to attack him.
Danny Diaz, Mr. Bush’s hard-charging campaign manager, has told people he would like to accelerate the assault on Mr. Rubio. At a briefing earlier this month for congressional chiefs of staff whose bosses are backing Mr. Bush, Mr. Diaz bragged about the size of their opposition research file on the senator, and said they were prepared to begin a full-scale attack, according to a presidential campaign veteran who was briefed on the conversation and requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Mike Murphy, the longtime adviser to Mr. Bush who now controls the super PAC, has told people he would like to go after Mr. Rubio but does not want to do so immediately after the debate because it could reinforce a perception of desperation.
Mr. Rubio’s campaign held a conference call on Thursday morning with top donors and supporters. The message delivered by Todd Harris, a senior adviser, was, according to two people who listened in, “This isn’t about Jeb.” And he implored people to raise as much money for Mr. Rubio as they could, as quickly as possible while the memory of the debate remained fresh.
While the senator, for now, has been able to take a highroad approach in not attacking Mr. Bush, he has found it impossible to ignore an intensifying barrage. Attacks come not just from the Bush apparatus but from Democrats, a sign that Mr. Rubio is the emerging favorite with those in the party who believe that outsider candidates like Donald J. Trump and Ben Carson, leaders in many recent polls, are little more than political fads.
But Mr. Rubio’s graciousness is also self-interested and rather provincial: He and Mr. Bush are skirmishing over the trove of donors in their home state, Florida.
With Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush fighting over support from the establishment, the race for the anti-establishment mantle appeared to clarify.
A pointed and combative Ted Cruz seemed to break through on Wednesday as a top competitor in the scramble for support from voters who reject any candidate representing politics as usual. His challenge will be to siphon off enough support from voters now split between Mr. Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, and Mr. Trump.
From New Hampshire, Mr. Bush heads to Florida on Friday for a high school football game in a community struck hard by a hurricane when he was governor. Mr. Rubio will be in Iowa for a full day of rallies and town hall-style meetings with voters. Then the two men will cross paths again (along with several other contenders) on Saturday at the state fairgrounds in Des Moines during a forum hosted by the Iowa Republican Party.
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