MIAMI—Publicly, Bill Clinton's crisscrossing of Florida last year was part of Democrats' effort to retake the governor's office. But in behind-the-scenes conversations, the former president was working toward an additional goal: scouting out Hillary Clinton's chances for victory here in 2016.
Analyzing out loud, the former president talked to friends and operatives alike about how to win the nation's largest swing state, particularly in the event that two of its favorite sons—former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio—enter the race.
The consensus: Florida is up for grabs.
The former president's political reconnaissance is an early indication that his wife has little intention of ceding the state, which many consider Bush country, in her presidential bid. While those close to Hillary Clinton maintain that her immediate attention will be focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, the early-voting states that kick off the primary season, Florida Democrats say her camp is taking early steps in the state—a place that has both lifted and frustrated the Clintons' political careers.
With its bevy of wealthy donors, the Sunshine State is expected to play a key role in fundraising, and Clinton's team is already busy building a finance team and reviving the robust money network in the state that helped fuel her primary bid against Barack Obama in 2008.
The presumptive Democratic candidate's camp is also making calls about potential political staff and considering campaign stops here as part of an impending announcement tour this month, according to Florida Democrats familiar with the plans.
The early attention to the Sunshine State underscores not only its political value in 2016 but also the significant challenge of potentially competing here with Bush, a popular former two-term governor with deep roots in a state that many see as a bulwark for his expected presidential campaign.
Clinton backers acknowledge that Rubio, the state's charismatic junior senator, who is expected to announce his own presidential bid next week, could also complicate the Democrat's path in Florida. But they see Bush as the bigger threat, in large part because of his vast political network and overwhelming fundraising advantage in the GOP field.
Democrats say that while Clinton can win the White House without Florida, the state is nevertheless a top priority; a victory here would almost certainly block Bush's path to the presidency if he were the GOP nominee. No Republican since Calvin Coolidge has won the White House without Florida.
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"If Hillary wins Florida, it's game over," said Ben Pollara, a Democratic fundraiser who ran Clinton's finance operation in the state in 2008.
Recent polls show Bush and Clinton neck-and-neck in the state, which Democrats describe as a sort of second home to the Clintons. Bill Clinton in particular has been a frequent visitor, logging at least a half dozen trips in the last year alone.
Florida is also home to some of the Clintons' biggest supporters and most-trusted advisers, including Chris Korge, a Miami developer and Democratic bundler, and Craig Smith, a former White House political director under President Clinton who has played a critical role in Ready for Hillary, the super PAC that has helped sign up nearly 4 million supporters nationwide for the coming campaign.
"I think the thing the Clintons have going for them is that their operation here is pretty turnkey," said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who ran Obama's Florida campaign in 2008. "They have both financial and political capital lined up and ready to go."
Still, some Democrats say Clinton needs to move much faster to counter Bush's built-in advantages and the grassroots enthusiasm generated by a crop of Florida-based candidates, including Rubio, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and neurosurgeon and author Ben Carson.
"You have all this energy in Florida on their side and there's nothing on our side at this point," said Screven Watson, a Democratic strategist and former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. "This is what scares people about the Clinton machine: that they take a lot for granted.
"If you're running against Ted Cruz, you can take a lot for granted," he said. "But it's a game-changer with Jeb on the table."
Indeed, Bush already appears to be attracting powerful allies. The Florida firefighters' union, which typically endorses a Democrat for president but backed Bush in his two terms for governor, is "leaning heavily" toward Bush again in 2016, Jim Tolley, the union's president, told the Sun Sentinel last month.
Some Democrats are especially concerned that Bush's ties to the state's fast-growing Hispanic population could undercut Clinton's strength with a key constituency that rallied behind her presidential bid seven years ago. Bush, a fluent Spanish speaker with a Mexican-born wife, won the Latino vote in his two successful campaigns for governor in 1998 and 2002, and he backs a path to legal status for immigrants in the country illegally.
"Jeb will be a formidable candidate in the Hispanic community," said Rod Smith, a former Democratic state senator and top Clinton supporter in 2008.
And yet, others note that the state has changed considerably in the eight years since Bush left office, with a huge influx of Puerto Ricans in central Florida reshaping the political landscape in Democrats' favor. Barack Obama won the state's Latino vote twice, and, in 2012, captured nearly half the Cuban-American vote, a record high for a Democrat in the traditionally conservative community.
Democrats also argue that the state's booming population has blunted some of Bush's homegrown advantage. It's been 13 years since his name was last on the ballot, and, according to voter files maintained by the state party, only 28 percent of active Florida voters participated in either of Bush's past two elections.
Given the state's reputation for electoral mishaps and a surge in independent voters, operatives in both parties expect a close fight, regardless of the candidates.
"It would be hard to be very presumptive about Florida for any of them," said Bob Poe, a former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. "It's a 48-48 state, and then you have to fight over the rest of it."
For the Clintons, Florida occupies a special place in family lore.
Bill often credits his win in the state's straw poll in 1991 as a critical moment in his own presidential campaign, boosting him from obscurity to rising political star. (He lost the state in the 1992 general election but won it in 1996.)
For Hillary, the memories are more bittersweet. After losing the hotly contested 2008 South Carolina primary to Obama, she won Florida but was denied its delegates because the state had violated party rules by holding an early primary. The win was little more than a symbolic show of strength that left her supporters feeling disenfranchised after record voter turnout.
"Florida could have been the springboard that clearly set a path to victory for her," said Ana Cruz, a Democratic strategist who helped run Clinton's effort in the state. "There isn't a week that goes by that someone has not stopped me and asked, 'When is she going to run again?'"
Thousands of those 2008 volunteers now form the backbone of the Ready for Hillary grassroots operation in Florida, something that Cruz likens to a finely tuned car. "When she is ready to drive it, all that she has to do is jump in," Cruz said.
Reeling from a series of losses in statewide contests, Florida Democrats are already offering the Clintons campaign advice, telling the couple that Hillary Clinton must travel outside the Democratic bastions of South Florida and compete for working-class, white women in the northern reaches of the state.
For now, though, the focus is on campaign cash.
Jon Adrabi, a top Florida fundraiser who worked on Clinton's 2008 bid, will oversee fundraising in the Southeast region of the country, a development first reported by BuzzFeed. The operation will be anchored by a constellation of wealthy South Florida donors whose ties to the Clintons go back decades. Last time around, Florida contributed more than $8.5 million to Clinton's campaign, making it the third largest source of her political money behind New York and California, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
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Michael J. Mishak is a political correspondent covering the 2016 presidential campaign for National Journal. Previously, he was a national political writer for The Associated Press in Miami, where his coverage of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio won state and regional awards. He also covered Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Legislature for the Los Angeles Times and politics and labor for the Las Vegas Sun, where he contributed to a Pulitzer Prize-winning series about construction worker deaths on the Strip. A Philadelphia native, Mishak cut his political teeth reporting on his hometown's mayoral race in 2003, which played out amid a federal corruption probe and the attempted firebombing of a candidate's office.