TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio speak at next week's Republican National Convention in their home state, they might be auditioning to be GOP presidential candidates themselves.
If President Barack Obama defeats presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney in November, supporters will be pushing Bush and Rubio to run in four years. They are popular with conservatives, have strong national profiles, could easily raise the requisite millions and hire the right staff to wage serious campaigns, and their speeches in Tampa could give those bids a lift, just as Obama's appearance at the 2004 Democratic National Convention helped position him to win in 2008.
Bush and Rubio might not have the same cache at the moment as some of the other big-name speakers on the convention schedule, some of whom might also seek the White House in four years or eight: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who turned down broad calls to run this year, is giving the keynote address. Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a conservative hero for defeating labor unions in a showdown earlier this year, also will get turns at the podium.
Rubio, though, is being given a prime spot — he will introduce Romney, a point when viewership will be at a peak. Even if the convention were being held elsewhere, it's likely he would have been given a prominent role as a tea party favorite who happens to be Hispanic, a demographic the GOP is trying to woo.
Bush likely drew his slot because the convention is in Florida. He hadn't been expecting an invitation and wasn't a speaker during the two Republican conventions when he was governor — and that's when his brother, George W. Bush, was the nominee.
No matter what happens, Bush and Rubio won't be running against each other. Rubio, 41, considers Bush to be a mentor — he consulted the former governor before running for Senate in 2010 — and his supporters say he would defer if Bush ran. Neither is willing to discuss their specific plans.
"It's flattering. I think people mean it as a compliment," Rubio said of speculation that he could run for president. "What I have to remind myself right now is that I have a job as a United States senator. Everyone I've ever known that tries to use their position as a stepping stone for something else has ended up destroying themselves."
Bush, 59, said he isn't thinking about has political future and is content in private life. He has done several fundraising events for Romney and his focus is on getting him elected. Since leaving the governor's office in 2007, he's been a business consultant and is on several corporate boards, including the hospital chain Tenet Healthcare Corp. and the lumber company Rayonier.
"It's a huge opportunity that Gov. Romney will take advantage of to lay out a clear, bold alternative to Obama economics," Bush said of the convention. "His convention speech, particularly ... is the place that I'm expecting and have the confidence that he will begin that effort."
Florida Congressman Connie Mack IV is also speaking at the convention. He'll be the first speaker leading up to Romney's closing speech — a prime spot that could be a reward for Mack's early endorsement and campaigning for Romney. It also serves to give Mack attention as he seeks to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a seat that Republicans are targeting as they try to retake control of the Senate.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the right person making the right speech at a convention can catapult the person to the top of the national conversation.
"Speaking at prime time at a national convention can be a magical moment for people that want to change the course and direction of our country. We've seen it over and over again over the years. And there's no question that Marco Rubio is an extraordinarily special person in our party," Priebus said. "This is going to be an important convention for a lot of folks and my suspicion is it's going to be important for Marco as well."
Both Bush and Rubio, when they give their speeches, will be starting from much stronger positions than Obama was eight years ago.
Bush, whose brother and father were presidents, is a Republican icon in Florida who still travels the country helping GOP candidates and is a national voice on education policy, particularly in support of charter schools and school choice. He began fielding questions about running for president shortly after becoming governor in 1999.
Because of his age and time out of office, he would probably have to run in 2016, if Romney loses, or in 2020, if Romney wins, to be viable. In a general election, he would have to differentiate himself from his brother, who left the White House unpopular with independent voters.
Rubio would be his strongest supporter if he ran.
"He's one of the biggest, best thinkers in the Republican Party. He articulates that message as well, if not better, than anyone else around," Rubio said of Bush. "It's just amazing to me the depth of knowledge that he has on virtually any issue from foreign relations to the economy and obviously education for somebody who's not in office. There will never be a shortage of need for that kind of presence no matter what he decides to do."
Rubio was elected to the Senate in 2010 and was often mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate before Romney chose Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. He's a darling among conservatives and during a recent bus tour to promote his autobiography, fans repeatedly said they hope to see him in the White House one day. Because of his youth, he could be a viable candidate for the next quarter century, particularly if he finds an issue that allows him to broaden his appeal beyond conservative Republicans.
"I'm glad to represent Florida, but thank you," Rubio politely said to one woman who approached to have her copy of "An American Son" signed and expressed her hope he'd be president someday.
As he waited to meet Rubio, Fred Werner, a 64-year-old pharmacist from Panama City, said he hopes the convention is a springboard for Rubio to become president.
"I like his sincerity, his feel for the people and what we need and what we don't need," Werner said. "Hopefully down the road, instead of Senator Rubio, we can address him as Mr. President. I wouldn't mind that at all."
Rubio instead takes a "who knows?" attitude about the future.
"Public service in the political realm is a valid way to serve your country and a good way to make a difference and that's how I feel today. There may come a point in my life where that changes, where I'll be at a different stage where maybe I'd like to contribute in a different way. I don't know. I never thought I'd be in the Senate four years ago," Rubio said.
Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bsfarrington.