Hop on the Marco Rubio reporters’ bus for a full day, the bus tailing the candidate on his “Marco Mobile” across rainy New Hampshire, and you hear that — Hey! Didn’t ya know? — the presidential candidate’s father was a bartender and his mother was a maid. You hear it four times, in fact, at each of the Florida senator’s four townhall meetings with voters.
There’s the raising-the-stakes line about the 2016 election being “a referendum on our identity.” There’s the gloomy warning that seven more years of Democratic governance would result in a nation “in decline.” There’s the acknowledgment that voters are “angry, and they should be.” But, lest that sound like a concession to Republican rival Donald Trump, Rubio intones, “Anger is not a plan.”
He wants to get to your questions, he promises voters twice, at the beginning and near the end of his not-so-short opening remarks, which often top 20 minutes. But he first wants you to know, needs you to know, just how personal this campaign is for him, the son of immigrants — who were born in Cuba, as you’ve probably already heard — for whom America “is not just the country I was born in — it is the nation that literally changed the history of my family.”
Event after event, it’s the same lines, the same anecdotes, even the same jokes, often delivered with the same oh-so-perfect timing. (His memoir, An American Son, which helped him pay back his student-loan debt, is “now available on paperback!” Cue laughter. Every time.)
This is the talent of Marco Rubio, presidential candidate. And also what some of his rivals are trying to turn into a liability.
He’s too scripted, opponent Chris Christie says. Too rehearsed. He doesn’t answer enough questions from voters — maybe five or six per event — or from reporters.
On Wednesday, Rubio did hold an informal news conference, a “gaggle” or an “avail” in the parlance of embedded reporters hungry for candidate reaction — “reax” — to the latest kerfuffle of the day. He also put himself in front of cameras and audio recorders two more times to give sound bites about the end of the campaigns of Rand Paul (“We wish him well”) and Rick Santorum, who endorsed Rubio (“We want to use him as much as he’s willing to work for us”).
Rubio laughs off Christie’s criticism. “It’s my message,” he said. “It’s the reason why I’m running for president.”
It’s also what makes Rubio an effective debater. He can drop prepared lines from his speech in response to most questions, lines that are fine-tuned and sound good on TV.
Reporters find that boring, because they have to listen to it over and over again, unable to squeeze a new detail, a new revelation, from the polished politician.
But most voters don’t have the time or inclination to watch the same candidate repeatedly. So, much of what they hear seems entirely fresh.
Not all of it, though.
“Yeeeah, the ISIS thing — you hear it in every commercial,” said Nancy Searles, a 58-year-old from Concord, who saw Rubio address her and her coworkers at Globe Manufacturing in Pittsfield. (Rubio, in case you missed it, wants to “destroy” the terrorist group and give any terrorists captured alive a “one-way ticket to Guantánamo.”) “If you watch the debates, you have all this information already.”
What she and other voters say they come for is to hear Rubio answer their questions.
“I know a lot of politicians like to dodge a question,” said 29-year-old Shane Casimiro of Dover, who sipped a beer as he prepared for Rubio to arrive at Cara’s Irish Pub past 6 p.m. “I came to see him on his feet.” (He was persuaded: “Tonight, he earned my vote.”)
There, Rubio offers a few more glimpses into himself.
When a woman asked him about his proposals to help people with disabilities — the context was Trump’s mocking of a disabled New York Times reporter — Rubio called Trump’s comment “distasteful” — “I think people see it for what it is” — but instead of hitting his opponent, which he’s repeatedly declined to do, he told a personal story.
“The two men who were most influential to me were my father and my grandfather. Both happened to be disabled,” he said, noting his grandfather had a bad leg from polio and his father a bad foot from an injury playing youth baseball.
The anecdote wasn’t exactly a detailed policy proposal. Yet it’s the sort of answer that resonates with voters, who mostly seem to want to vote for someone they like.
And Rubio is deft at knowing what his audiences like.
At Globe, which makes protective suits for firefighters (yes, Rubio tried one on), he was addressing employees, not supporters who went out of their way to attend a campaign event. And these being mostly blue-collar workers, Rubio switched his speech around some, starting off with (even more) details about his parents’ humble beginnings.
“My wife’s brother and my sister’s husband are firefighters down in Miami-Dade County, for the fire department, so they’ll know who you guys are,” he said, after taking a cellphone picture of a suit holding a Rubio campaign sign. “My brothers-in-law know they’re not going to get rich as firefighters. They just want to make enough money to own a home. That is what makes us economically special and different from the rest of the world.”
This, too, is the talent of Marco Rubio, presidential candidate: To adjust his responses, ever so slightly, with just enough nuance, depending on his audience. He rarely says something entirely different from one group to another, so he doesn’t get pinned as a panderer or a flip-flopper. But listen to him enough, and the variations are there. The bar audience gets the football jokes. The Iowa evangelicals got God. New Hampshire independents get the story about his work with Democrat Bernie Sanders on military veterans’ legislation.
Some voters notice — and have no problem with it.
“I liked him. I liked him more than Chris Christie, to be honest, mostly because he sounds sincere,” said 33-year-old mechanic Vinny Grasso, who’s a registered Democrat.
“He almost didn’t sound Republican.”
Miami Herald Political Wrtier Patricia Mazzei is in New Hampshire for the primary. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei