The TV cameras lingered briefly on the edge of the stage. Marco Rubio had been introduced moments earlier to delighted applause, but — like a man savoring a celebration — he took an extra second or two to appear.
“Thank you!” he exclaimed once he reached the microphone. He opened his arms wide and flashed one of those big smiles that made his eyes crinkle. “So this is the moment they said would never happen!”
He hadn’t won anything. He had placed third in the Iowa caucuses.
It was the closest he got to presidential victory.
In the weeks to come, the Florida senator would finish second in South Carolina and Nevada, and eventually notch wins in Minnesota, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Yet none of those results would prompt a similar display of triumph from a candidate whose campaign never fully took off.
When it all collapsed Tuesday in his home state of Florida, Rubio blamed his loss on a perfect storm of anger at the modern economy and politicians’ past indifference to working people’s plight.
“We should have seen this coming,” Rubio said. “In 2007 and 2008, there was a horrible downturn in our economy, and these changes to our economy that are happening are disrupting people’s lives. And people are very upset about it.”
We should have seen this coming.
He’d had little room for error from the start. Rubio boasted no voter base, no donor base and no clear path to the nomination. He had disturbed Florida’s political order by running in the same year as former Gov. Jeb Bush — a decision that angered some Bush loyalists so much that they branded Rubio “Judas.”
To have a shot, Rubio would need a little luck — and a near-flawless campaign.
Luck, he got. Bush stumbled out of the gate, giving others an opening. Another mainstream Republican, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, flailed even before Bush did. Terrorist attacks focused attention on foreign policy, one of Rubio’s top issues in the U.S. Senate.
His campaign did well, too. Its headquarters were in Washington, away from the hometown hangers-on Rubio’s advisers feared would distract the candidate in Miami. By necessity, they kept costs low: At first, campaign manager Terry Sullivan personally approved every expenditure over $500. Sullivan and strategists Todd Harris and Heath Thompson relied heavily on Rubio’s telegenic presence rather than on repeated visits to early states, to expose him to voters on cable news.
Democrats openly feared Rubio’s electability. Republicans privately relished any comparisons to Barack Obama, a first-term senator who had won the presidency — twice.
Rubio wooed wealthy donors to sustain him beyond the largesse of Miami billionaire auto magnate Norman Braman. He swatted back a debate challenge from Bush, who never brought up Rubio’s missed Senate votes in the same way — though a super PAC backing him did. Right to Rise USA spent some $40 million against Rubio, according to his campaign.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever taken $40 million of super PAC dollars against them in a Republican primary and still been around to tell about it,” Rubio told the Miami Herald in an interview Monday. “You usually get knocked out of the race.”
What Rubio hadn’t counted on — what nobody counted on — was Donald Trump.
“If you had told anybody a year ago that the front-runner would be someone who has Donald Trump’s background and Donald Trump’s policy positions, they would tell you that’s just not possible,” Rubio said. “Yet that’s what happened.”
The celebrity mogul usurped Rubio’s TV strategy, getting more free coverage than any candidate in history by giving freewheeling speeches and unpredictable news conferences. Suddenly, the most media-friendly candidate wasn’t the boyish 44-year-old Cuban American from Miami. It was the brash 69-year-old reality-TV host from New York.
Rubio couldn’t compete with Trump on air time — or with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in organization. Cruz, aware he wouldn’t win votes on personality alone, fundraised extensively and invested deeply in a data-driven operation to target voters and get them to the polls.
Instead, Rubio stuck to what he knew best: his fine-tuned stump speech, the one so familiar to Miami Republicans that tugged at exiles’ heartstrings.
His discipline helped Rubio best all rivals except Cruz and Trump in Iowa. He seemed poised to nab second place in New Hampshire, which might have knocked out Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Then came a fateful four minutes and 38 seconds on a debate stage against Chris Christie.
“Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Rubio said, after criticizing Christie’s record as New Jersey governor. “He knows exactly what he’s doing. He is trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world.”
Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing.
“You see, everybody — I want the people at home to think about this,” Christie rebutted. “That’s what Washington, D.C., does: the drive-by shot at the beginning, with incorrect and incomplete information, and then the memorized, 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”
Rubio responded — by repeating his Obama line. Four more times.
He had made the one error he couldn’t afford. The campaign had been built on Rubio’s TV poise. Without it, it had little else to run on.
For days before the debate, there had been warning signs. Reporters covering Rubio groaned that he was too tightly controlled. He appeared tired and sounded programmed.
And voters expecting personal contact got an unwelcome glimpse at Rubio’s made-for-TV persona. Rubio arrived late to a town hall in Exeter, N.H., four nights before the debate. The crowd cheered his entrance — only to be shushed by staff so the candidate could sit for a Fox News interview.
Rubio’s fifth place forced him to adapt his strategy. He suddenly opened up to the press. He recaptured voters’ sense of idealism with the support of Gov. Nikki Haley, who is Indian-American, and Sen. Tim Scott, who is African-American; they formed a formidable trio, the possible GOP of the future. But they weren’t enough to win.
Rubio placed second. It took him nowhere. He had run out of his short-lived momentum.
So he abruptly became Trump’s antagonist in chief. The tactic seemed to work — until Rubio took it too far, labeling Trump a man with small hands, and “you know what they say.” Trump dubbed Rubio “Liddle Marco.”
“I’ll never forget, on those couple of days where I was going back and forth with Donald Trump and talking about things that I’m not going to talk about again, I had every cable network in America cutting in live to my speeches, just to see if I would do it again,” Rubio said. “But as soon as you’d pivot back to policy and message, you’d get ignored.”
The play seemed to bump Rubio’s numbers in Virginia on Super Tuesday. But he didn’t win, at least not enough. And in politics, losing begets losing. Rubio dropped the Trump lines, saying he had “embarrassed” his four children.
The taunts undercut Rubio’s political brand, which had already undergone a more pronounced transformation. Rubio rode the 2010 tea-party wave into the Senate but was never fully part of it. On Capitol Hill, as part of a group of eight lawmakers, he endorsed immigration reform anathema to his ultraconservative supporters. By the time he sought the presidency, Rubio had mostly become part of the party establishment.
“You told me, as a member of the tea party, ‘Please vote for me,’ ” said Eliecer Hernandez, a 39-year-old from Hialeah who backed Rubio six years ago but supported Cruz for the presidency. “We invested in you. What you did, the Gang of Eight?” He shook his head.
Sitting next to Hernandez at a Cruz rally last week, 44-year-old Osmany Gonzalez of Miami Gardens called Rubio a “traitor.”
Voter Osmany Gonzalez on Marco Rubio
Rubio also forgot to nurture many of his Florida political relationships once he pivoted from rookie senator to likely presidential candidate. And he ultimately proved ill-equipped to handle his own state.
Calls reminding absentee voters to mail in their ballots started way too late. A Miami office opened in a mad scramble just a day after staff members obtained the office key. A Hialeah rally organized at a mostly empty Milander Stadium began at 5 p.m. on a weekday, a notoriously poorly attended time given Miami traffic.
“The campaign came into Florida with no structure in place. They expected that Florida was going to be a momentum state,” said Christian Cámara, a Tallahassee Republican activist who volunteered for Rubio in several states. “You always have to have a contingency plan, and in a campaign, the contingency plan is a ground game. They didn’t have that.” Nowhere? “Nowhere.”
On Primary Day in Florida, a single presidential campaign put volunteer poll-watchers — more than 100 of them — in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to monitor voting from inside the precincts.
All had been registered by Trump.
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.