Seven years ago, Marco Rubio trekked to New Hampshire so invested in another politician’s presidential campaign that a cop almost wrote him a ticket for darting through traffic as he shoved Florida oranges into bewildered drivers’ hands.
He returned to the nation’s first primary state on Friday, this time as a Republican presidential candidate himself. He brought no citrus. He stopped no cars.
Marco Rubio’s first day campaigning directly to voters since announcing his candidacy Monday in Miami was a far more dignified affair than his now-distant 2008 trip. He drew a flock of curious reporters. He wore a body microphone so the professional camera crew trailing him — presumably to produce future television ads — could record his every word.
And he confronted the formidable task of introducing himself to voters outside Florida.
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“I didn’t know his name, actually,” said Joseph Biladeaux, a 20-year-old welding student.
Neither did another welder, Chris Scales, 32, who showed Rubio how to use a metal-sawing machine — “It’s not rocket science” — Friday morning at a made-for-TV encounter in Manchester Community College’s welding-skills shop.
“I’ll give him credit: He shook my dirty hand,” Scales said, pointing to his blackened palm. With the nonchalance of someone who lives in a state used to a procession of politicians, he compared it to a similar visit recently by the vice president of the United States: Joe “Biden didn’t do that,” Scales said.
Rubio, 43, who has cultivated a high profile in the U.S. Senate, is not entirely unknown in New Hampshire. He visited in February to promote his latest book and in 2010 helped fellow GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte get elected. A house party held Friday afternoon near downtown Manchester drew about 100 people eager to meet Rubio in the flesh.
But this isn’t Miami, where the homegrown Rubio is simply Marco.
To get to that level of familiarity, voters in early primary states demand to be wooed, in person —even if the state is made up of “a small, non-diverse group of citizens,” as Rubio referred to New Hampshire and Iowa in his 2012 memoir. He was arguing for a larger and more diverse state — Florida — to follow in the primary schedule.
But he won’t get his early-Florida-primary wish in 2016, so he must do well elsewhere to stay in the race.
He knows the importance of New Hampshire: In 2008, he traveled to the state with then-state Rep. David Rivera to pass out Florida oranges for Mike Huckabee, who was running for president. Huckabee, who placed third in the primary after John McCain and Mitt Romney, said Friday that he’ll announce his 2016 campaign plans next month.
Rubio’s trip Friday was choreographed to raise his New Hampshire profile. He taped an interview to air Sunday on CBS News’ Face the Nation. He met with the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper’s editorial board. He knocked on doors in the town of Hampstead to campaign for a statehouse candidate running in a special election.
And Rubio didn’t disappoint. He was funny, self-assured and energetic, firing off thoughts so quickly that reporters unaccustomed to covering him remarked that it was challenging to keep up.
“He’s almost Reagan-esque,” gushed attorney Norman Silber, 70, a former Miamian who awaited Rubio at the house party (which, for the uninitiated, does not involve a keg). Silber and his wife, Linda Hirsch, a psychologist, who now live in New Hampshire, already sound persuaded by Rubio, despite their affection for that other Florida politician with first-name-only status, former Gov. Jeb Bush.
“As much as we love Jeb — and we supported him as governor — we think Marco might have an edge on him right now,” Silber said, unprompted, adding that he still has an old “Jeb!” bumper sticker.
But they were the exception among voters prepared to play hard to get.
“I’m not necessarily voting for Marco Rubio today,” said Jay Pedone, who hosted the party for Rubio at his home. A friend of theirs knows Rubio campaign aide Jim Merrill, but Pedone said he would be open to hosting other contenders — even Bush, though “I don’t agree with all his politics,” he said.
New Hampshire voters can afford to shop around: Nineteen Republican presidential hopefuls will travel to Nashua between Friday and Saturday to speak at a summit organized by the state’s Republican Party. Rubio spoke to a packed hall over dinner Friday night.
“2016 will be a referendum on our nation’s identity,” he said, summarizing his stump speech to a rapt prime-time audience that gave him a hearty standing ovation.
Still, Rubio cuts a somewhat exotic figure in New Hampshire. Voters ask him about Cuba — the issue he is perhaps most comfortable discussing — and laugh at his cracks about the lack of Cuban coffee and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s possible retirement. He doesn’t seem like the natural candidate of the political establishment, which has decades-long ties to Bush’s family, or of the conservative base, which embodies the official state motto of “Live Free or Die.”
“How do you win?” a man asked Rubio in Pedone’s crowded living room. “Do you win by really rallying the base? Or do you win in the general by really moving towards the center?”
“You know, I’ve never accepted those distinctions,” Rubio said.
“Our fundamental challenge is the Democratic Party and the left have spent the better part of 20 years telling the American people that Republicans don’t care about people like them — that if you make $15 an hour, the Republican Party doesn’t care about you. It’s a lie. ... We have to show people how our policies will help themselves improve their lives.”
Rubio is betting that message — and the messenger — will resonate.
An earlier version of this story misstated the year in which Ayotte was elected.