Marco Rubio isn't quite ready to say he's running for president, yet admits it sure does look like he will seek the White House in 2016.
"I think that's reflected in both our travel and some of the staffing decisions that we've made," the Florida senator told The Associated Press. "We — if in fact I make that final decision on a run — want those elements to be in place."
The message that his decision is still pending is one Rubio delivered again this past week on stage, both at the Conservative Public Action Conference outside Washington and at the conservative Club For Growth in Palm Beach. But allies of the first-term senator and former speaker of the Florida House who have spoken with him about his plans fully expect that he will run for president, rather than a second Senate term.
"I assume he's running," said Wayne Berman, a veteran Republican fundraiser who was chairman of Sen. John McCain's presidential fundraising in 2008. "He will help the party turn the page, politically, to the next generation."
Nearly a dozen people close to Rubio, including GOP officials, fundraisers and his advisers, say Rubio has told them he is in the final stages of planning the launch of his presidential run and will formally join the crowded field of Republican hopefuls as early as April. All spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss their private conversations with Rubio.
Berman said he is working to line up — and keep — donors to finance that national campaign. Among the donors who have signed on: Dallas investor George Seay and Goldman Sachs' Joe Wall.
Rubio spent his Monday evening trying to land yet another donor: casino giant Sheldon Adelson.
Rubio shared dinner with the mega-donor in the private dining room of a Washington steakhouse, according to a Republican with direct knowledge of the meeting. The Republican spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private session between Rubio, Adelson and his wife, Miriam Adelson.
The Adelsons spent more than $100 million trying to influence elections in 2012.
Rubio's goal is to raise $50 million before next year's Iowa caucuses, according to four donors who have spoken to Rubio about the likely campaign's budget.
"Marco's best asset is Marco," said former congressional aide Scott Weaver, who organized a recent dinner for potential donors and is serving as a co-chairman of Rubio's advisory committee. "If you can get Marco in front of people, he sells himself. It's been an easier sales process than we thought at this point."
Rubio's team is also aggressively courting Spencer Zwick, Mitt Romney's top fundraiser in the 2012 presidential race. Zwick is sought after by several prospective Republican candidates and has also spoken favorably about Rubio's chief rival, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
That competition is vicious. One high-profile Rubio finance lieutenant, former Rep. Bill Paxon, had helped raise tens of thousands for Rubio. But on Monday, Paxon announced he was switching his allegiances to Bush.
Bush was a mentor to Rubio during their time in Florida. The two are likely to compete for many of the same donors, both in Florida and nationwide, and Rubio acknowledges it would be "a bit unusual" to run against Bush.
"I think he's proving he's going to be a very formidable candidate," Rubio said. "I just believe if you think the best place to serve your country is to run for and hopefully win the presidency, you move forward on that irrespective of who else is in the race. If I ran, it wouldn't be against him."
No major candidates for president have declared their intentions; even Bush says his decision on that is ahead. Formally entering the race triggers a host of legal and campaign finance complications. But a decision to commit is different for Rubio, whose Senate term runs through 2016. He has said repeatedly he will not run for Senate re-election and the presidential nomination at the same time.
That's a different approach than likely presidential rival Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator is trying to set up a two-step system in his state that would allow him to seek the presidential nomination through a caucus and a Senate bid through a primary. Kentucky law prohibits one person from seeking two positions in the same nominating process.
Rubio's advisers have told party leaders that they should expect to recruit a candidate to run for his Senate seat in 2016, according to four people involved in the talks, who discussed the private conversation on the condition of anonymity because Rubio has not notified the National Republican Senatorial Committee of his plans.
At the same time, Rubio's team is preparing for a national campaign. His top political adviser and likely campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, has been recruiting operatives — including Jim Merrill, who ran Romney's New Hampshire campaigns and was at Rubio's side for a two-day visit to the state last week. Spokesman Alex Conant is leaving Rubio's Senate office this week to begin work at his political action committee.
"When you consider doing something like that, you can't just decide to do it and then start working," Rubio said. "You have to have conditions in place to move forward. Some of them are very similar to the ones we'd have to take anyway if we ran for Senate. Others are different."
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