Marco Rubio began the Republican presidential race as a pesky upstart unafraid to show up his political friend, Jeb Bush, for a shot at the White House. He enters Florida’s primary Tuesday as a short-lived GOP establishment favorite overwhelmed by the popular force of Donald Trump.
Which means Rubio’s candidacy could come to an end in his home state after a wild election cycle that even Rubio, for all his smooth eloquence and political shrewdness, struggles to explain.
“If I were in the position Donald Trump is in right now, everybody in the party would be telling everyone else to get out and rally around,” he told the Miami Herald in a telephone interview Monday. “You’re not going to see that happen perhaps at any point in this primary if Donald Trump continues in the delegate race. So I don’t think this year’s anything like the past — or anything like the future.”
He spoke from his campaign bus, dubbed the Marco Mobile, as he rode from Jacksonville to Melbourne — part of a last-day I-95 ride that stopped in West Palm Beach and concluded in his hometown of West Miami — in a frenzied, final push for Republican votes.
He had launched his candidacy 11 months and a day earlier — a fact he noted in West Palm, where he rolled up his shirtsleeves and struck a reflective tone before a crowd at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
“My whole life, I’ve been told, ‘Being humble is a virtue.’ And now being humble is a weakness, being vain, self-absorbed is a virtue,” he said. “Leadership is not inciting people to get angrier. That’s not leadership. You know what it is? That’s called demagoguery.”
In spite of his philosophical mood, the Florida senator made clear in the Herald interview that he’s not ready to imagine life after politics. Or to say whether he’ll drop out if he loses on Tuesday. Or to even concede that public polls showing a possible Trump blowout are accurate.
“Polling this year’s the worst it’s ever been,” he said, interrupting a question that asked about the latest results. “They’ve been widely off on everything from Michigan on the Democratic side to Virginia on the Republican side.”
He needs them to be wrong again. And he insists they will be, even if his team got a late start chasing absentee ballots and turning out supporters in the state he won in 2010.
Leadership is not inciting people to get angrier … That’s called demagoguery.
Marco Rubio on Donald Trump
“We feel good about our team and the effort we put in, and we feel it’s going to be enough for a win,” Rubio said. “Surprise a lot of people tomorrow.”
The question Rubio interrupted was about a Monmouth University survey that found that the protests that erupted in Chicago after Trump canceled a planned rally Friday night only made Trump supporters more likely to back the celebrity businessman.
“If that poll is true, if it’s an accurate reflection of how people feel, then I think it says that no one is going to beat Donald Trump,” Rubio said, “because in any other election year, someone who’s behaving the way he’s behaving would be long gone. This year it seems to work, for reasons I don’t fully understand.”
The morning after Chicago, where the images harkened to the political unrest of 1968, Rubio admitted to reporters in Largo, near Tampa, that he might not go through with supporting Trump if Trump wins the nomination. Looking decimated, with bags under his eyes and his voice breaking, he said: “I don’t know. Getting harder every day.”
The moment of bare honesty, aired live on cable news, had been viewed more than 300,000 times online as of Monday afternoon.
What got to him, Rubio told the Herald, was the accumulation of everything that had happened before Friday: Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, allegedly grabbing a reporter for the conservative Breitbart News. A white Trump supporter sucker-punching a black protester. Trump later vowing to pay the assaulter’s legal bills.
“You start to look at all of that, you start to say to yourself, ‘Where does this lead?’ There are some unstable people out there. You don’t know how they’re going to react to a leading presidential candidate basically inviting people to violence,” Rubio said. “And the other part that’s said: We’re a country where everybody hates each other now. I mean, people are literally at each other’s throats. Over politics. … I just — I don’t think it’s going to lead us to a good place.”
“I still have hope that a growing number of voters will come to their senses and realize that the direction we’re headed in is disastrous for the conservative movement and disastrous for the Republican Party,” he said. “If Donald Trump is our nominee, there’s going to be a day of reckoning. … I hope it will happen before the election. But whether it’s before or after the election, there are going to be a lot of people — including some very prominent people — who are going to spend years explaining what it is that led them to fall into this trap.”
Rubio and remaining rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich failed to denounce Trump in such stark terms earlier — or even Thursday night at the University of Miami debate. In recent days, Rubio in particular has sounded more like Bush, who in his waning candidacy made Trump his chief target as Bush’s own popularity plummeted.
In the interview, Rubio mostly rejected the idea that Republican rhetoric over the past seven years might have contributed to Trump’s rise. The GOP, he suggested, is not unified enough to take blame for acting in concert to stoke voters’ fears and frustration.
“I would just say to you that I don’t think there is such a thing as the Republican Party. That’s what this debate is around right now,” he said. “And you have two-thirds of Republicans who consistently reject Donald Trump at the ballot box. But they are divided among seven, six, now three people, and it has an impact on the ballot, and so it’s allowed him with a plurality to rack up more [delegates] than anyone else at this point.”
“We’ve never seen anything like this before, and we’ll just have to ask ourselves as a society, ‘Have we reached a point now where there are no boundaries?’ ” he added. “‘Are there boundaries left, in terms of what people are allowed to say in political discourse?’”
Rubio, who has said he regrets lobbing personal attacks against Trump, said that come Tuesday night — regardless of the Florida outcome — he’ll remember that he tried to stay true to himself in a singular campaign.
“I’ve always said it, from the very beginning of this race, I’m going to go out and be who I am, and if that’s enough to be president, then I look forward to serving the country,” he said. “And if it isn’t, then I have other things I want to do in my life. You know, public service is what I do. It isn’t who I am.”
Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.