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Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera tells supporters he's likely running for Senate

@PatriciaMazzei @MaryEllenKlas

Florida Republican Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera appears poised to enter the 2016 U.S. Senate race to replace Marco Rubio, telephoning political donors and activists over the past few days to gauge their support and indicate his strong interest in launching a bid, several sources have told the Miami Herald.

U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach became the first major Republican to declare his candidacy Wednesday, drawing a heap of conservative support that could force others in his party, including Lopez-Cantera, to quickly make up their minds about running. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Chumuckla has said he's thinking about it. So are state Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville and former Attorney General Bill McCollum.

"America needs a new generation of leaders to address the big issues facing the country: alleviating the middle class squeeze and promoting economic opportunity, confronting the significant national security challenges threatening the safety of our people, and reforming the culture of Washington D.C.," DeSantis said in a statement kicking off his campaign. "As a candidate for Senate, I look forward to offering reforms based on limited government principles that will make our country stronger and more prosperous."

A hypothetical DeSantis vs. Lopez-Cantera primary matchup could pit the GOP's conservative activists against the party's establishment. Three tea-party type political action committees -- FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund -- endorsed DeSantis in short order Wednesday. Lopez-Cantera, the former Miami-Dade County property appraiser, would likely have a broader base of support from moderate but voter-rich South Florida.

If he runs, Lopez-Cantera, who has been considering a bid for weeks, could be on the ballot with Rubio, a close friend and fellow Cuban American. Their candidacies could mutually benefit each other, with Lopez-Cantera standing in for Rubio as Rubio campaigns nationally and Rubio attracting more big-name donor attention to Lopez-Cantera. Like Rubio, Lopez-Cantera has been a favorite of Miami auto magnate Norman Braman, a prominent benefactor. A "super PAC" to benefit Lopez-Cantera is in the works, sources told the Herald.

Lopez-Cantera is already slated to introduce Rubio at the Miami-Dade Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day fund-raising dinner next month. Lopez-Cantera's wife works in the Herald's circulation department.

Having a pair of Miami Republican Hispanics running for president and Senate could be a problem for Democrats, who have long depended on winning big in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to counter more conservative voters in Southwest and North Florida. The Democratic Party's only major Senate candidate so far is U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who grew up in Miami but represents Jupiter and is far not particularly well-known outside his congressional district. U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando, a favorite of progressive activists, is mulling a run.

Lopez-Cantera campaigned statewide last year as Gov. Rick Scott's running mate. Scott appointed him lieutenant governor in 2014, a year after Lopez-Cantera was elected Miami-Dade County property appraiser. He previously represented a Miami district in the Florida House, where he rose up the ranks to majority leader.

Lopez-Cantera was a behind-the-scenes presence in the Florida Capitol in the waning days of this year's legislative session before the House abruptly adjourned. But legislative leaders told the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times that while Lopez-Cantera spoke with some senators, his conversations focused mainly on his alliance with the House, whom the governor has recently sided with on Medicaid expansion, an issue that has fractured the GOP.

This post and its headline have been updated.