Marco Rubio Fights for His Campaign’s Future, and to Preserve His Reputation in the GOP

(Tribune Washington Bureau/TNS) -

Sen. Marco Rubio is making a last stand in Florida that is as much about reigniting his once-hopeful presidential campaign as burnishing his own 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 GOP—and his role in the messy fissure.

The violence that has erupted at Trump’s rallies left him doubting his own resolve when asked what has become 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 next 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.

“Those of us who are Republicans need to look at ourselves and say: Is this what the party is going to be about?” he said in an interview. “And we as Americans need to look and say: Is this the kind of discourse we’re going to have in American politics moving forward? Because if it is, we’re in a lot of trouble.”

As Rubio launched a final bid before Tuesday’s primary, he went on an apology tour of sorts this week, declaring regret for the trash talk he unleashed on Trump,“not wanting to be remembered as the candidate who, in attempting to fight Trump’s perceived bullying, interjected [smutty] 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 state’s 99 winner-take-all delegates.

Trump continues to lead in Florida polls, as he does nationally, though Rubio has narrowed the gap to single digits here in recent days. The state will become a proving ground for the “never Trump” effort as outside groups pour in resources to try to halt Trump’s stride to the party nomination.

For his part, Rubio has not set foot outside the Sunshine State all week as he tries to replicate the come-from-behind win that first sent the tea party darling 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, where Rubio 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 media appearances and made-for-media rallies instead of the pavement-pounding hard work of turning out the vote.

An event for Rubio in the Miami suburb of Hialeah this 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 pull out a win at home.

Rival Sen. Ted Cruz, who is ahead of Rubio in the national delegate count but trails in Florida polls, is trying to block Rubio’s comeback so he can emerge to face Trump head-on in the contests to come.

In fact, it was Cruz, not Rubio, who commanded the attention here this week with high-profile endorsements from former rival candidate Carly Fiorina and Utah’s Mike Lee, the first senator to back his campaign.

With the 99 delegates at stake here Tuesday, and another 66 in Ohio where Gov. John Kasich is fighting a similar 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.”