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story.lead_photo.caption Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio makes a campaign stop Monday in Rochester, N.H. “As we see candidates exit this race, I think you’re going to see Marco Rubio soar,” Arkansas state Sen. Bart Hester said Tuesday. - Photo by AP / MARY SCHWALM

WASHINGTON -- Twelve Arkansas legislators and a state official are backing U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio for president, the Republican candidate's campaign announced Tuesday.

The list of lawmakers is topped by Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, House Majority Leader Ken Bragg and House Majority Whip Jim Dotson.

Hendren, a lieutenant in the Missouri Air National Guard, said he is impressed by Rubio's grasp of military issues.

"He's the only one with serious solutions for the national security threats that we face," the Sulphur Springs lawmaker said. "I'm a military guy, my son's a military guy and it's serious business. We've got some other folks who say what they think's going to get their poll numbers up without thinking about the practical implications of what they're saying. Rubio's done the research and he understands the geopolitical situation."

Hendren just returned from a three-month stint in the Middle East where Russian, U.S., British and French jets soar over Syria and a civil war rages on the ground.

"We are closer to the potential of a serious conflict, a World War III conflict, than we've been in my lifetime," the 52-year-old former fighter pilot said. "To elect a commander in chief who doesn't understand that and doesn't take that seriously is dangerous."

Bragg, the House majority leader, said he's also impressed with the Florida senator.

Asked why he's endorsing Rubio, the Sheridan lawmaker said, "I think he's going to have a broader appeal across a wider base than any of the other candidates. That's one of the big reasons."

Rubio will be able to attract independent voters, while also energizing conservative Republicans, Bragg said. "He really seems to know what he believes in. ... He's able to articulate those values that represent the Republican Party very well."

In addition to Hendren, Bragg and Dotson of Bentonville, other Republican state legislators publicly backing Rubio include his Arkansas campaign chairman, Sen. Bart Hester of Cave Springs; Rep. Justin Boyd of Fort Smith; Rep. Lanny Fite of Benton; Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View; Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson of Benton; Rep. Charlie Collins of Fayetteville; Rep. DeAnn Vaught of Horatio and Rep. Laurie Rushing of Hot Springs. Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe is also endorsing Rubio, as is Rep. Nate Bell of Mena, a Republican turned independent.

The Rubio campaign unveiled its complete list of House and Senate supporters on the same day that another Republican contender, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, visited the state.

Hester said other Rubio backers are likely to step forward between now and the state's March 1 presidential primary.

"As we see candidates exit this race, I think you're going to see Marco Rubio soar," Hester said. "I know a bunch of legislators that will probably move [to Rubio] once [Mike] Huckabee makes his exit. With a vast majority of Republican lawmakers, if Rubio's not their first choice, he's their second. ... I think we've got a vast tidal wave of support coming."

Tuesday's announcement suggests that "Huckabee's lost his mojo in the state," said Ouachita Baptist University political science professor Hal Bass, adding that the ex-governor's position as "favorite son seems to be weakening or deteriorating."

The announcement also suggests that Rubio is gaining momentum among office holders and other Republican leaders, Bass said. "It looks like Rubio's the one who's getting the most traction among this inside group within the party, the inner circle that's being challenged so much by the [Donald] Trump and the Cruz candidacies," he said.

But state Sen. Jason Rapert discounts reports that Huckabee is in trouble, especially those coming from opposing campaigns. "I believe that's political trash-talking. ... [They] sow some seeds of doubt and hope that they take root," he said.

The Bigelow Republican said he believes that Huckabee would be "one of the greatest presidents that we could ever hope to have" and that Huckabee will enjoy strong support in his native state. "I think he's going to do well in Arkansas. He always has," Rapert said.

A Section on 12/23/2015

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