WASHINGTON — Determined to protect their new Senate majority, Republican officials are lobbying Florida Sen. Marco Rubio heavily to seek re-election to Congress next year even though he says he'll forgo that campaign if he makes an expected bid for the White House.
Officials familiar with the effort say that recruiting Rubio to seek re-election is a top priority at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Sen Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the organization, said recently he hopes Rubio will be a candidate for a second term, although he did not confirm that approaches had been made to the senator or his close aides.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Republicans, who captured a majority last fall, must defend 24 out of 34 seats on the ballot in 2016. With Rubio on the ticket, party officials calculate their chances of holding his Senate seat would be far greater than if he steps aside, given his proven fundraising and vote-getting ability.
So far, despite the appeals made to his top aides, Rubio says he's not changed his mind to seek only one office next year.
"If I'm running for president I'm running for president and I'll be a presidential candidate," he said Thursday in an interview in advance of a trip to New Hampshire, which will hold the first presidential primary of the 2016 campaign early next year.
"We have a plethora of very talented Republicans who would make great Senate candidates if they decided to run" for the Senate from Florida, he added.
Republicans insist they have a deep bench of other potential Senate candidates in Florida, but Rubio is their first choice.
"Sen. Rubio is an impressive senator and of course candidate," said Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "It would be political malpractice if we didn't want him to run again."
There is ample precedent for candidates to run simultaneously for president and new terms in the Senate. This year, another likely presidential hopeful, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, is hoping the legislature will change state law to make it possible for him to do so.
But Rubio's situation is more complicated politically, largely because of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's presence in the presidential race. Bush has already secured the support of several of the state's top donors, and remains popular eight years after leaving the statehouse.
Like other presidential hopefuls in a crowded field, Rubio will face a struggle to emerge from early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire as a viable candidate for the nomination. If he is successful, he would quickly face Bush in a home-state primary where defeat for either man would be a major embarrassment if not a campaign-killer.
Republican officials said appeals to the senator run the gamut from the personal — Rubio could continue coaching his young sons at football if he stuck to the Senate — to the political. While Florida's presidential primary is March 1, the candidate qualifying deadline for the Senate race isn't until May.
That would give Rubio time to test the presidential waters while still keeping his options open for seeking a second Senate term, if he were inclined to do so.
As a presidential candidate, Rubio hopes to appeal both to tea party voters and establishment supporters, as he did in winning his Senate seat in 2010. On one signature issue early in his term, he was a strong supporter of legislation to overhaul immigration laws that included a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
The measure passed the Senate but was blocked in the House by tea party-aligned lawmakers.
Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.