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Rubio says he is out -- for real

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(Scott Olson)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – What U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio might do next has been the subject of intense speculation in political circles ever since he dropped out of the Republican presidential primary fight in March. Rubio is a relatively young, telegenic Cuban-American in a party struggling with young and Hispanic voters. Few believe he's run his last campaign.

But Rubio has said he won't run for governor in 2018 and publicly ruled out re-election to the Senate when he launched his presidential bid last year. In the interim, a posse of Republicans has signed up to try to keep the seat in GOP hands, from Congressmen Ron DeSantis and David Jolly to Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera to businessmen Carlos Beruff and Todd Wilcox.

The problem? Right now, the seat --- and with it, possibly control of the entire Senate --- seems to be at best a 50-50 prospect for the GOP. The five Republicans are still struggling with low name ID, and Democratic Congressmen Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson are at worst in statistical dead heats in hypothetical match-ups with the GOP candidates.

CNN suggested that Rubio was facing pressure to run for re-election, a fire he tried to put out Thursday in (among other forums) a conversation with home-state media. Rubio said he has heard from colleagues and Florida activists "in the last day or so" who want him to re-up for six more years in the Senate. But Rubio repeatedly touched on his friendship with Lopez-Cantera to suggest that he wasn't about to elbow his way back into the race.

"I think he's a great candidate," Rubio said. "I think he'll make a great senator."

And while Rubio wasn't yet willing to formally say that he was endorsing Lopez-Cantera, he left little doubt that he would eventually do so, likely in "a few weeks."

"We're going to do these things at the appropriate time in conjunction with him. ... I don't think there's any mystery about my feelings about him and about his candidacy," Rubio said.

The refusal to run wasn't quite as strong as Gen. William Sherman's promise not to run if nominated for the presidency and not to serve if elected. Rubio didn't slam the door shut on the possibility of running if Lopez-Cantera were to drop out. The senator simply said he didn't answer hypothetical questions and that reporters shouldn't attach any significance to that.

As for a recent burst of activity on issues critical to Florida, Rubio insisted he's simply doing his job. When he was running for president, Rubio was often criticized by opponents for having one of the worst voting rates in the Senate --- something he explained at the time by pointing out that he had a campaign to run.

In fact, Rubio tried (somewhat in vain) to focus at least some of Thursday's conversation on Florida-related issues: addressing the Zika virus, citrus greening, a troubled housing project in Jacksonville, measures to help Puerto Rico, questions about benefits for Cuban immigrants.

"This is my job," he said Thursday. "This is what I'm supposed to be doing."

And there are some Republicans who would like to see him do it a bit longer.

THE OTHER DEMOCRAT

Pam Keith hopes Democrats in the next few months start to see her as an option for the U.S. Senate seat while the front-running Murphy and Grayson viciously spar in headlines and through social media.

The former Navy JAG officer and former Florida Power & Light attorney made the rounds Tuesday in Tallahassee without handlers in tow, trying to let the media know that progressive-favorite Grayson and establishment-backed Murphy aren't the only Democrats seeking the party nomination.

"It is my belief that winning Florida (in the presidential race) is going to turn on African-American votes, on Latino votes, and women, and I'm the only candidate that actually helps our presidential nominee in all three categories," Keith said. "There are some who would question whether Alan Grayson helps in those communities. And I doubt anybody makes a straight-faced argument that Patrick Murphy puts anybody at the table not already coming."

In March, the Saint Leo University Polling Institute found Keith receiving support from about 1.9 percent of likely Democratic voters, compared to 19.9 percent for Murphy and 16.7 percent for Grayson.

But Keith said she's all in, intending to pay the $10,440 qualifying fee next month.

The party hasn't excluded her from appearing and speaking at events. But the party also hasn't embraced her.

She has raised $98,081, chipped in $48,705 of her own money and started the second quarter of the year with just $13,361 in her campaign account.

She flew to Tallahassee on her own and used Uber to travel around the city to introduce herself and explain why she decided to run for the Senate when she's never previously run for public office.

"You have to run for what you know and what you're suited to, what your skills are related to," Keith said. "I don't know zoning rules of West Palm Beach. ... I knew that I wanted to run for federal office because that is the law that I know."

The daughter of diplomat Kenton Keith, who was the director of the U.S. Information Agency's Office of North African, Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, Pam Keith received a bachelor's degree in rhetoric and communications from the University of California, Davis before earning her law degree from Boston College. While in school she joined the U.S. Navy, working up to staff judge advocate at the Navy Computers and Telecommunications Command in Washington. She resigned her commission at the end of 1999 and went to work for law firms in the nation's capital.

She came to Florida in 2011, working as senior labor counsel at Florida Power & Light.

Before opening her campaign account in October 2014, she had looked at running for Murphy's House seat. But at the time, Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor was running. To the south, she didn't want to challenge Democratic incumbent congresswomen Lois Frankel and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

TWEET OF THE WEEK: "I for one look forward to the Rubio for Senate/Trump for President joint rallies in Florida in October."---Harry Enten (@ForecasterEnten), a writer and analyst for the website FiveThirtyEight, about stories Thursday suggesting Rubio would run for re-election to his Senate seat. Rubio and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump clashed bitterly in the primary.