Marco Rubio crisscrossed the harvested farm fields of northeastern Iowa, drawing enthusiastic crowds, standing ovations and warm reviews of his sunny message that the nation could see a “new American century” forged by new leadership.
So many people showed up to see the Republican presidential candidate at an automotive marketing firm here that every seat was filled and scores stood along the walls for the hourlong event. Rubio was late to start the town hall meeting because he first stopped by an overflow room to greet those left outside the auditorium.
“There is nothing this country is confronting that we can’t fix,” Rubio told more than 300 people in the main room Thursday night. “If we can turn the page, if we can elevate a new generation of leaders with new ideas that are relevant to the 21st century, we won’t just restore our country’s greatness ... our children will be the freest and most prosperous Americans that have ever lived.”
After a summer where he was not much of a factor in the presidential campaign, the Florida senator is rising in the polls, though he still lags far behind front-runner Donald Trump. In some surveys, he has surpassed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
The momentum is driven by Rubio’s strong debate performances and by developments outside his control — two of his GOP rivals dropped out and Bush, widely expected to lead the field, is running what so far has been an inconsistent effort. Bush’s campaign had to spend part of last week reassuring jittery donors.
Rubio has stepped up his appearances and organizational efforts around Iowa, which in February will hold the first nominating contest in the nation. The question is whether he can capitalize on the moment, turning intrigued voters into committed supporters.
Rubio’s rising prospects are accompanied by new attacks, notably by Bush, Rubio’s onetime mentor. Rubio has also drawn the scrutiny of a super PAC supporting Bush that has more than $100 million at its disposal, a portion of which will almost certainly be spent on attack advertising.
At the Cedar Falls event, Rubio’s campaign kicked out a young tracker sent by Right to Rise, the pro-Bush super PAC, to record Rubio’s remarks.
Last week, Bush attacked Rubio by name for the first time, and compared his younger rival’s experience as a one-term senator with that of President Obama when he was elected in 2008, an anathema among Republican voters.
“Look, we had a president who came in and said the same kind of thing — new and improved, hope and change — and he didn’t have the leadership skills to fix things,” Bush said on CNN.
Rubio, asked Friday about Bush’s attack, praised the former governor.
“I continue to have tremendous admiration and respect and affection for Jeb,” Rubio told reporters in Dubuque, Iowa. “But I’m running for president. I’m not running against him or anybody else. So I’m going to continue to focus on what I think our country needs to do.”
But that hasn’t stopped Rubio from aiming veiled — yet obvious — criticism at Bush. Nearly two dozen times at three events in less than 24 hours, Rubio, 44, called for generational change. Bush is 62 and the son and brother of former presidents.
“The problem is that if we keep electing the same kind of people with the same ideas, the next person in line, the person all the experts tell us we have to vote for, if we keep doing that, nothing is going to change,” Rubio told more than 200 people Friday in a sun-dappled meeting room in Dubuque. Solutions “will not come from the Republican Party if we do not turn the page and open it up for a new generation of leadership.”
During the two-day, three-city swing through Iowa, Rubio laid out typical GOP policy prescriptions — overhauling the nation’s tax and regulatory policy, repealing and replacing Obamacare, tapping all of the nation’s energy resources. He calls for changing entitlement programs for future generations, such as having Social Security benefits kick in a year later.
Rubio also called for modernizing education, including letting students attend high school and vocational training so they can graduate with a diploma and an industry certification. Rubio, who only recently paid off a six-figure college loan debt, said colleges should be required to inform students how much their graduates earn in certain majors before families agree to large loans to pay for tuition.
He delved into great detail on foreign policy, promising a more aggressive, muscular America. At a national security forum in Cedar Rapids, Rubio labeled Russian President Vladimir Putin a “gangster” and a “thug,” and called for increased American military presence in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Throughout, Rubio’s skills as an orator charmed the audiences.
“He’s very impressive; he spoke from the heart. He had a lot of great ideas. He kept right on point, no teleprompters,” said Bob Lentz, a retired middle school teacher from Dubuque. “He’s a very engaging person.”
Voters such as Lentz were moved by Rubio’s tales of his parents’ journey from Cuba to the United States, and how the son of a man who served cocktails in the back of hotel banquet rooms was now an elected leader speaking at the front of such rooms.
“America owes me absolutely nothing. I have a debt to this country I will never repay. This is the nation that literally changed the history of my family,” Rubio said in Cedar Falls. “The journey from behind the bar to what I’m doing today … it’s the essence of the American dream.”
All the while, Rubio was filmed with a high-definition camera, likely for a commercial. But he does not appear to have the expansive — and expensive — campaign that was among the factors that led Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to withdraw from the race.
Rubio was not accompanied by a large entourage. Traveling into and out of Cedar Rapids, he flew coach; he struggled to jam his carry-on bag into an overhead bin and wheeled his own luggage around the airport.
The “regular guy” impressed voters who saw Rubio in person for the first time.
“I think he’s very sincere, a moral person. That’s what I’m looking for, someone who is a good person,” said Mary Jane McCollum, a retired teacher, after listening to Rubio in Cedar Falls. She remains undecided about who she will caucus for, but said, “I like the fact that he has a level-headed take on things, that we don’t have the shouting Donald Trump version.”
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