Marco Rubio clearly saw an opening. The Cuban-American senator from Florida with presidential aspirations appeared just about everywhere after President Obama’s announcement of a historic shift in relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
He was on Fox News. CNBC. NBC. CBS. ABC. And CNN — three times. Each time he went on television, Rubio sharpened his criticism of Obama. He called him the “worst negotiator” as president in history, worse than Jimmy Carter. He didn’t even spare Pope Francis, who had a huge behind-the-scenes role in the deal, from criticism.
“I would also ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy, which is critical for a free people — for a people to truly be free,” Rubio told reporters.
The landmark détente with a former adversary, as well as Cuba’s proximity to the crucial swing state of Florida, makes it a key issue heading into the 2016 election. And a few of the prospective candidates on the horizon began taking notice immediately on Wednesday.
Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida who is "actively exploring" a presidential bid of his own, ripped Obama's decision to ease restrictions on Cuba, calling it a giveaway to the repressive Castro regime.
"It undermines America’s credibility and undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba," Bush said in a statement on Facebook. "Cuba is a dictatorship with a disastrous human rights record, and now President Obama has rewarded those dictators."
And in a lengthy statement, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), like Rubio a Cuban-American prospective 2016 candidate, said both Cuban President Raúl Castro and his brother, former President Fidel Castro, had been given “both international legitimacy and a badly-needed economic lifeline from President Obama.”
While top Republican contenders have raced to criticize Obama, the Democrats' early 2016 frontrunner has embraced the president's position on Cuba.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton late Wednesday said she supported Obama's decision to "change course on Cuba policy."
"Despite good intentions, our decades-long policy of isolation has only strengthened the Castro regime's grip on power," Clinton said in a statement.
"As I have said, the best way to bring change to Cuba is to expose its people to the values, information, and material comforts of the outside world. The goal of increased U.S. engagement in the days and years ahead should be to encourage real and lasting reforms for the Cuban people. And the other nations of the Americas should join us in this effort."
Clinton's statement aligned with her views in the past. She has called on the U.S. to normalize diplomatic ties with the island nation.
In an interview with Fusion's Jorge Ramos in June, Clinton was asked whether it's time to end the U.S.'s five-decade long embargo against Cuba.
"Yes, yes. I would like to see that," she said. "I think it has been a failure and I think it has propped up the Castros because they can blame everything on the embargo."
Clinton said that the U.S. should move toward establishing formal relations with Cuba, while expanding trade and travel, after the government released American contractor Alan Gross from prison.
"You know, some day I would like to go to Cuba. I would someday, yes," she told Ramos.
Obama's decision to establish ties with Cuba sets up a dividing line between several major presidential hopefuls, and nowhere could that be more significant than Florida.
It was once conventional wisdom that supporting normalized relations with Cuba was a surefire way to lose the battleground state because it would alienate the solidly Republican Cuban-American community, which supported a tough stance toward the Castros.
But their views on the embargo have recently become more nuanced. A slight majority (52 percent) of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County, the epicenter of the exile community, now want to end the embargo, according to a poll conducted by Florida International University earlier this year. And almost seven in 10 want the U.S. to have formal diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The shift has been driven by young Cuban-Americans, 90 percent of whom want to reestablish diplomatic ties. It is also supported by Cubans who have arrived in the U.S. during the last two decades.
Obama was able to avoid a major backlash over his stance on Cuba, winning the Sunshine State in both 2008 and 2012. According to one exit poll, two years ago he nearly won a majority of Cuban-Americans, whose party affiliation has gradually become less Republican.
So if support for the embargo has fallen, even among Miami Cubans, why haven't more Republicans decided to buck the party line? The primary.
Cuban-Americans over the age of 65 and Republicans are the most likely to still back the embargo and both groups remain politically active. South Florida is represented by three Republican representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Carlos Curbelo, who all vehemently oppose establishing relations with Cuba. And the issue remains an emotional one among many in the community.
During a press conference at the Capitol, Rubio said the politics of the issue have no bearing on his position.
“I’ve never analyzed this issue from an electoral perspective…this is how I passionately feel,” Rubio said. “Quite frankly it’s irrelevant for me … I don’t care if 99 percent of people in polls disagree with my position. This is my position and I feel passionately about it.”
Updated with further comment from Hillary Clinton.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.