The chants filled the University of Central Florida arena Saturday before Donald Trump took the stage.
“No show Marco Rubio! No show Marco Rubio!”
The crowd and the Trump campaign aides egging them on were mocking Rubio for missing so many U.S. Senate votes and committee meetings while running for president, but they could just as easily been referring to Rubio’s invisible Florida campaign for most of the past year.
Only a few days ago — months after Donald Trump opened his first campaign offices in Florida — the Rubio campaign started opening offices outside his Miami-Dade home turf. Veteran Republican organizers, likewise, have only in recent days started seeing signs of Rubio reaching out to people who have not yet returned their mail ballot.
“If we win Florida, it’s all over,” Trump told a crowd of nearly 10,000 at UCF, and most political observers agree that at least for Rubio, it would be all over if he loses Florida on March 15.
Rubio has repeatedly predicted he will win his home state, even though he has not led a single poll of Florida Republicans in six months. Two recent polls have shown him trailing by as much as 20 percentage points.
Now, finally, Rubio is focused on Florida, scheduling campaign stops throughout the state, including Tampa on Monday and Sarasota on Tuesday, while his super PAC political committee is spending at least $6 million in TV ads mostly blasting Trump.
Saturday afternoon, while Trump was stirring up the troops in Orlando, Rubio was 140 miles away at a Jacksonville rally.
“The eyes of the nation are on this great state,” Rubio told the Jacksonville crowd. “This state where my parents met the American Dream, this state where my own American Dreams have come to pass, this state that has always given me a chance and will do so again.”
In his speech, Rubio attacked Trump for not being a true, lifelong conservative. And did it in the most Floridian way possible: by comparing Trump to Charlie Crist.
Rubio harkened back to his 2010 U.S. Senate campaign, when he beat Crist — then the sitting governor and still a Republican.
“I was arguing that the person running as a Republican was not a Republican. That the person masquerading as a conservative was not a conservative,” he said. “It’s funny how history repeats itself.”
It echoed a theme Rubio used earlier in the day before flying to Florida: “We will win the state of Florida. We will beat Donald Trump there the way we beat Charlie Crist,” he told activists at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington.
A poll released Saturday by an anti-Trump political committee, Our Principles, found Trump leading Florida only slightly, with 35 percent support, compared to 30 percent for Rubio, 15 percent for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and 9 percent for Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Trump faces perhaps his biggest onslaught of negative ads to date in Florida, with roughly $9 million in ads already purchased by Rubio’s political committee and other Trump groups.
The Republican frontrunner, meanwhile, has bought less than $2 million in TV ads in Florida, according to groups tracking the purchases, and in Orlando gloated about how little money he spent compared to other candidates he beat in prior contests.
“I spent the least amount of money, and I’m No. 1 by a lot. I’m killing everybody,” he said.
Some local GOP party officials say they are seeing growing anti-Trump sentiment as Florida’s primary approaches, but that could be wishful thinking.
John Triguerio, an evangelical Christian undecided in the election between Rubio and Ted Cruz, attended Rubio’s rally.
Trump’s backers are just reacting to a Republican Party that they feel has abandoned them, he said, although he doesn’t understand why so many evangelicals are among them.
“He does not support our values,” Triguerio, who lives in Jacksonville, said. “He doesn’t have any actual plans.”
Negative ads against Trump, highlighting business bankruptcies or allegations of fraud against “Trump University” have had little impact. But in Orlando, several voters unprompted said they are seeing a backlash against Rubio for recently ramping up his attacks on Trump, even alluding to the size of Trump’s private parts.
“I used to really like Marco Rubio but when he did what he did last week — with the hands stuff and just going after Trump one thing after another, I said this guy’s a dirt bag. Wait a minute Rubio, you’re like 44 and Trump’s a billionaire, and you’re going to insult this guy’s intelligence? I think he’s going to really suffer from that,” said James Berwich, 50, of Vero Beach.
St. Cloud resident David Turnbull, 66, said he was stunned by how Rubio suddenly became so juvenile in his attacks.
“I really liked Marco until the last week and a half when he became a blithering idiot. The comments, the innuendo and the outright third-grade attacks, I wouldn’t support him for dog catcher any more,” he said.
March 15 marks a critical point in the race, in large part because Florida, with 99 delegates, and Ohio, with 66, award all their delegates to the winner. If Trump loses both those states, the prospects for keeping him from winning the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination become significantly greater.
If he wins both states, he might be — as Trump himself predicts — unstoppable.
Contact Adam C. Smith at email@example.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.