Sen. Marco Rubio is making a last stand in Florida that is as much about reigniting his once-hopeful presidential campaign as it is about burnishing his legacy after romping in the gutter with Donald Trump.
Acknowledging he is the underdog now in his home state, Rubio was downcast Saturday as he took stock of the fractured condition of the Republican Party — and of his role in the messy fissure.
The violence that has erupted at Trump's rallies left Rubio doubting his own resolve when asked the defining question for Republican leaders in the Trump era: Yes, he would still back the billionaire if he ended up the party's nominee.
“Getting harder every day,” Rubio sighed at an early-morning campaign stop in the Tampa suburb of Largo. “I'm sad for this country.”
The ugly altercations between Trump supporters and protesters reached new levels at Friday's Trump rallies but could provide Rubio a long-shot boost before voters go to the polls this week. His backers have often been late deciders who considered voting for the New York mogul only to have second thoughts.
A lofty appeal, as Rubio made Saturday while barnstorming the state, may be his best, last hope.
At an evening rally in Pensacola, Rubio branded Trump as a front-runner “who is going to Americans who are angry and who are frustrated and is telling them to get angrier and more frustrated. That is not conservatism.”
American political discourse should not consist of people “screaming, angry, calling each other names,” he said.
“That's what they do in third-world countries,” he said.
In a final bid before Tuesday's primary, Rubio went on an apology tour of sorts this week, declaring regret for the trash talk he unleashed on Trump's “spray tans” and “small hands,” not wanting to be remembered as the candidate who, in fighting Trump's perceived bullying, interjected penis jokes to presidential politics.
Rubio often calls his home state the place “where it all began” — where his immigrant parents arrived from Cuba in his classic American son's story — but now he faces tough odds in his bid to scoop up the winner-take-all state's 99 delegates.
Trump leads in Florida polls, as he does nationally, though Rubio has narrowed the gap to single digits here in some recent polls. The state will become a proving ground for the “never Trump” effort as outside groups pour in resources to try to halt the celebrity businessman's stride to the party nomination.
For his part, Rubio has not left the Sunshine State all week as he tries to replicate the come-from-behind win that sent the tea party favorite to the Senate in 2010.
He is particularly courting the young, suburban families — “Starbucks voters” — who have propelled his campaign, as well as the large Cuban American community, among whom he enjoys favorite-son status.
But it may be too little, too late. While Rubio has a built-in infrastructure in the state, and is well-known on Spanish-language media, his campaign suffers as it has elsewhere from its reliance on television appearances and made-for-TV rallies instead of the pavement-pounding hard work of turning out the vote.
An event for Rubio in the Miami suburb of Hialeah last week drew widespread notice for its small crowd. Photos of supporters huddled at the goal line in an otherwise empty football stadium did not instill confidence that Rubio could win.
On Saturday, though, he showed flashes of the retail-politics skills that could perhaps help him eke out additional votes, addressing an overflow crowd outside his Pensacola rally with a bullhorn, braving blustery winds and drizzly weather.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is ahead of Rubio in the national delegate count and has gained on him in Florida polls, is trying to block Rubio's comeback so he can emerge to face Trump head-on in subsequent contests.
With the 99 delegates at stake here Tuesday, and an additional 66 in Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich is fighting a similar do-or-die home-state battle, victories by Trump could put him well
on the way to the nomination. The billionaire has more than 450 delegates of the 1,237 needed — almost 100 more than Cruz and three times as many as Rubio.
In a stunning acknowledgment of his own shortcomings Friday, Rubio signaled to Ohioans to vote not for him, but for Kasich, to stop Trump's rise.
“The feeling is Rubio has kind of recovered, and that maybe he's closed it up a little bit — but not nearly enough,” said one Republican strategist close to moneyed donors in the party, who called Rubio a “hurt guy.” “They just don't have a strong operation.”