CORAL GABLES, Fla. — As a teenager in the late 1980s, Marco Rubio’s favorite place to get drunk with his high school buddies was the golf course surrounding the Biltmore Hotel, a towering Mediterranean-style structure at the center of town. A decade later, the young lawyer and his wife Jeanette spent their wedding night in one of the Biltmore’s suites. On election night in 2010, Rubio celebrated his unlikely election to the United States Senate in one of the Biltmore’s ballrooms.
And sometime this year, the swirling circle of donors, activists, and politicos who spend their evenings gossiping at the Biltmore’s bar will decide whether Rubio gets a chance to become president in 2016 — or whether that honor should be given to Miami Republicans’ other favorite son, former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
In the months that have followed the 2012 election, the Biltmore, a 400-room luxury resort surrounded by banyan trees, has emerged as a national center of gravity for Republican politics: a must-stop for campaign fundraisers, and a favorite vacation spot for retired presidents. Bush runs his foundation out of an office at the hotel, and Rubio, who lives just a few miles away, has been spotted at the hotel gym’s morning spin classes.
It has become a matter of social survival here to develop a playful non-answer when asked which candidate one would support if both men decided to run for president in 2016 — something Ana Navarro knows better than anyone. A high-profile Republican strategist, longtime girlfriend to the Biltmore’s owner, and an avowed friend and ally to both Rubio and Bush, Navarro described a Rubio vs. Bush face-off as “the nightmare scenario for everyone here.”
“I’d get into the fetal position and lock myself in a room for nine months,” she said. “That just cannot happen… If we have to all lock ourselves in the Biltmore until white smoke comes out and we pick one, that’s what we will do.”
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in December, Jeb Bush Jr. sat at a poolside table a few hundred yards from the office where his father plots his political future, and, between sips of Diet Coke, offered his view of the immigration landscape, eagerly name-checking high-profile Republicans he expected to work on the issue.
“You’ve got the old guard — Lindsey Graham, John McCain — but what will be really interesting to see is where [Texas Senator] Ted Cruz comes out on this issue,” Bush said. “He’s a Tea Party guy, but he’s really nice. I mean, he’s, you know, really bright, very intelligent, and also comes from Cuban descent.”
In the political soap opera that is today’s Republican Party, the younger Bush’s not-so-veiled swipe at Rubio could be viewed as a juicy plot twist in the winding narrative arc that leads to the 2016 presidential primaries. (Rubio declined to comment on the jab.) But Bush was also giving voice to a sentiment that had been growing in his hometown ever since Rubio took office in 2010.
On the cover of Time magazine, Rubio is the “Republican Savior.” On Capitol Hill, he is the lynchpin holding together a potentially historic effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. And on Tuesday night, he will be his party’s anointed standard-bearer when he goes on live TV and delivers the GOP’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in two languages.
And while the senator’s top-notch handlers have worked overtime to cast his recent foray into immigration reform as a courageous move by a conservative visionary, the portrait painted by his more impatient constituents is that of an overly cautious politician acutely aware of his national profile, and desperate not to tarnish his impeccable brand.
“Gene” is Gene Prescott, the Biltmore’s proprietor and the Democratic fundraiser who shares an expensive Spanish revival — along with a Mercedes and high-end golf cart parked out front — with Navarro in the palm-lined Miami suburb of Coral Gables. Prescott bought the shuttered Biltmore, which had once hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and Al Capone, in 1992. Within four years, he had convinced Bill Clinton to hold a summit of Latin-American leaders at the hotel, and kept luring him back for vacations and fundraisers. Since then, he and Navarro have turned the place into a bipartisan hub of the political money circuit, and the collection of Beltway boldface names that have graced the hotel’s guest list over the years is among the couple’s proudest achievements. Navarro, who co-chaired Senator John McCain’s Hispanic Advisory Council in 2008, takes obvious pleasure in showing it off.
“It’s not uncommon to go down to the breakfast area and see Nancy Pelosi meeting with someone, or John McCain holding court in the lobby,” she boasts. “One time, George W. Bush and Harry Reid were here on the same night for different events. I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”
The hotel’s political relevance is only likely to increase in coming months, as it stages one of the most crucial plots in the Republican resurrection story: the awkward 2016 tango performed by Rubio and Bush.
With their shared passion for immigration reform, overlapping donor networks, and long, healthy alliance, Rubio and Bush have put Miami’s political class in the improbable position of having two favorite sons in the top tier of 2016 speculation — and sources say both men are actively mulling a run.
… But the Biltmore crowd isn’t so sure. Spend some time chatting with the local politicos here, and you get the sense that Rubio is still viewed as the kid straining to fill out an oversized suit, not quite ready for the grown-ups’ table.
Late last December, the Tampa Bay Times polled a bipartisan group of the state’s most “plugged-in political players,” and, strikingly, most of them believed Bush would run and Rubio would sit 2016 out. What’s more, an overwhelming majority — 82% — said Bush would be a stronger candidate.
… The prevailing complaint among Rubio’s Republican critics here is that he has allowed an obsessive preoccupation with his public image to keep him from growing into the leader they want him to be. …
Jeb Bush, on the other hand, has managed to adopt a certain cavalier, politics-be-damned attitude in the years since he left the governor’s office that’s endeared him to the insiders, vocally championing liberal immigration reform, lobbing bombs at his own party when he thinks they deserve it, and responding to media speculation about his presidential aspirations with a too-cool-for-school shrug. …
But with its upscale Prohibition-era speakeasy, the hotel also attracted a regular flow of mobsters, including Al Capone and bodyguard to New York City’s gangster elite, Thomas “Fatty” Walsh, who ran an illegal casino on the hotel’s 13th floor and was shot to death one night during a gambling dispute in the late ’20s or early ’30s. …
“1 of Senators I admire most & 1 of my fave ppl in world is staying w/us @BiltmoreHotel 2night. Guess who? (Hint- he likes “Ay-talian” food” Navarro tweeted last weekend, prompting a flurry of guesses from political journalists. (The answer: Sen. Lindsey Graham.)
When her 2012 horse of choice, Jon Huntsman, dropped out of the presidential race early last year, Navarro parlayed her dissenting voice and disdain for Mitt Romney into a contributor’s gig at CNN. Turn on the TV on any given evening, and you’re likely to see her holding court as the token iconoclastic Republican, urging her party to shape up and get with the times.
Her moderate Republican schtick — pro-immigration reform, and pro-gay rights — belongs to a certain genre of talking heads whose stock has gone up since the GOP’s made-for-cable implosion in 2012. What gives Navarro more credibility than the average TV bloviator is the proximity the Biltmore has afforded her to Rubio and Bush.
… Born in Nicaragua to a politically active father who fought against the leftist Sandanistas, Navarro came to Miami at age 8 to escape the violence in her country. At the time, Ronald Reagan’s fierce anti-Communism had placed the Republican Party firmly on the side of Nicaragua’s “freedom fighters,” and Navarro says she remembers becoming a Republican as a young girl when she heard the president declare, “They are the moral equal to our Founding Fathers.”
As she grew up, she became increasingly active in Miami politics, first as an activist working with Republicans to secure citizenship for Nicaraguan immigrants, and then as an outspoken voice against human rights violations in Cuba. She said it was always clear to her that Republicans were the ones who understood the immigrant’s plight and wanted to assimilate them into American society.
“He did nothing to build bridges to the Hispanic community,” she says now, expressing no regrets for failing to be a good Republican soldier. “I can’t tell you the number of high-level Hispanic surrogates who have come to after the campaign and told me how uncomfortable they were defending him. We cannot keep lending our names to defense of the indefensible!” …
South Florida, with its conservative Cuban population and rapidly growing Latino communities, is perhaps the only cluster of zip codes in the country where immigration reform has long been a top Republican priority. When Rubio was elected, many here expected — perhaps unrealistically — that he would leverage his status as a Latino Tea Party hero to force Washington’s hand on the issue.
Instead, he spent his first year in office ignoring it entirely, and his second year spewing vague sound bites as he stumped for a presidential candidate whose central immigration tenet was “self-deportation.”
By the end of 2012, many of his most ardent supporters had begun to worry that a gutless Rubio would spend his third year in office sitting on the sidelines and keeping his uniform clean while the two parties charged at each other for another bloody legislative fight over immigration.
“Marco’s very smart and very astute, and he has a deliberative process that he goes through, but he has a strong internal compass that tells him where north is,” said Navarro, who acts as a sort of ambassador between the senator and the hotel lobby lobbyists.
Jeb Jr., meanwhile, had spent considerable time on Capitol Hill last month as part of his Sun PAC trying to convince Republicans to take immigration reform seriously, leading a parade of law enforcement officials and Bible-wielding Christian leaders to make his case. By December, he was exhausted and slightly demoralized.
“If I had to guess, no, I don’t think we’ll get anything passed [in 2013],” he confessed, citing Democrats’ incentive to keep immigration as a wedge issue and the reluctance of Republicans like Rubio to risk upsetting the party’s base by forcing the conversation.
But last month, Rubio finally did get off the sidelines. After a seamless media rollout (naturally) — which included a preemptive op-ed outlining the need for “conservative immigration reform” and an interview with the Wall Street Journal — Rubio joined a bipartisan gang of senators to introduce a framework for a comprehensive immigration reform bill. He has spent virtually every waking minute since then selling the plan, which includes a path to citizenship for 13 million undocumented immigrants, among other things, to suspicious conservative media. (Cruz, the conservative wing’s new champion, came out against the immigration legislation.)
But, never forget, the Conquistador-Americans by the Biltmore pool, while they may sound like minor characters from a 1985 Miami Vice episode, are diverse. Therefore, they are morally better than you and deserve to take over the country.