In South Carolina, Marco Rubio makes explicit case for younger, more diverse GOP

Gov. Nikki Haley, R-South Carolina, left, campaigns with Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, in Chapin, S.C., on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016.
Gov. Nikki Haley, R-South Carolina, left, campaigns with Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, in Chapin, S.C., on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. AP

Darko Marco is gone.

Sure, Marco Rubio still summons fear on the presidential-campaign trail, issuing dire warnings about the Islamic State, the national debt, and what he characterizes as the impending death of the American Dream.

But the Rubio of some weeks ago who adopted a grim tone and creased face as he tried to keep up with the gloom and doom of Republican front-runners Donald Trump and, especially, Ted Cruz, is now smiling for selfies with voters who queue for him like a receiving line at a Miami quinceañera.

This is sunny Rubio, his most natural political persona. The one who cracks jokes and pokes fun at himself for repeating them verbatim because they get laughs. The one who keeps a room rapt in silence when he tells his family’s rag-to-riches story. The one who made a point Thursday of standing side-by-side with a white congressman (Trey Gowdy), an African-American senator (Tim Scott), and an Indian-American governor (Nikki Haley) to offer a portrait of what the GOP could look like.

“The great thing about our party is we have this great new generation of leaders ready to take the mantle,” the Cuban-American Rubio said at a rally at Swamp Rabbit CrossFit, a gym in Greenville, the heart of South Carolina’s conservative upstate. “We are prepared to turn the page and move forward.”

“Take a picture of this,” Haley encouraged attendees, who promptly raised their cellphone cameras. “Because this new group of conservatives taking over America looks like a Benetton commercial.”

This new group of conservatives taking over America looks like a Benetton commercial.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Marco Rubio and others

South Carolina’s Republican primary electorate does not. Neither do crowds at events for GOP candidates across the state.

But Rubio generally draws more twentysomethings and young families than some of his counterparts, and several people of color attended the Greenville rally of about 200 people.

None of this went unnoticed, either by reporters or voters.

“This was a much more diverse crowd,” said Denise Zangara, a retired banker and former Miami resident who is undecided among Rubio, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush, whom she saw in person last week. “There were a lot more different people. Younger.”

Rubio and Bush have both pledged to grow the GOP by campaigning directly to Latinos and African Americans, who largely vote Democratic. For Rubio, there’s no better visual in South Carolina than his rallies with Haley and Scott, the only African-American Republican in the U.S. Senate who boasts an up-by-the-bootstraps story of his own.

“I’m the guy who flunked out of high school,” a jovial Scott said in a booming voice. “I’m the only U.S. senator to ever fail civics, the study of politics!”

It helps Rubio that Scott and Gowdy act like a two-man stand-up act, giving voters a glimpse of the candidate’s own sense of humor before he appears on stage. Scott stretches out Rubio’s name like a basketball-game announcer (“Maaarcooo Ruuuuuubio!”), refers to Haley as “the cavalry,” and on occasion asks the crowd, “Can I get an ‘Amen’?”

While Rubio and company are ready with the quips and grins, his campaign is engaged in a punchy back-and-forth with Cruz, who sits just ahead of Rubio in most South Carolina polls. Rubio has labeled Cruz a liar; his aides pounced Thursday when Cruz’s campaign went live with an anti-Rubio website that featured an obviously PhotoShopped picture of Rubio shaking hands with President Barack Obama. (It apparently came from a stock photo readily available online after Googling “businessmen shaking hands.”)

“He’s making things up,” Rubio told reporters in Anderson, South Carolina, near Greenville. “In this case they literally made up a picture.”

He’s making things up.

Marco Rubio on rival Ted Cruz

Rubio is careful not to make his stump speeches about Cruz, though, letting the notorious South Carolina hardball politics happen in interviews and debates, and through surrogates. (“Politics in South Carolina is a blood sport,” Haley said Thursday, pointing at her feet. “I wear heels not as a fashion statement but because you have to be prepared to kick at any time.”)

Rubio can be Rubio by keeping his tone light-hearted and idealistic, in contrast to Cruz’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric and prosecutorial style.

“The angrier you are, the less likely you are to attract voters,” Scott told reporters in Greenville. “One thing we know about presidential elections: They’re aspirational elections. If you don’t have an aspirational message, it’s very difficult to attract new voters. You can hold on to your base, but you don’t grow the party. We’ve got to grow this party before it’s irrelevant.”

Unmentioned: Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

Miami Herald Political Writer Patricia Mazzei is in South Carolina for the Feb. 20 primary. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei