Lots of talk but little excitement at GOP forum to replace Rubio

Republican Senator Marco Rubio
Republican Senator Marco Rubio rkoltun@elnuevoherald.com

The Republican race to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate has an excitement problem. As in, it doesn’t have much.

At least, that was one of the conclusions that could be drawn from a forum Thursday night in Boca Raton, billed as the first event showcasing all five GOP candidates.

In the end, one of them didn’t show up — and the four who did struggled to energize the room. Some 200 Republicans sat down for dinner at the Boca Raton Marriott. At times, they seemed far more interested in their food than the speakers.

Things got livelier two hours into the event, after the candidates concluded their lengthy stump speeches and fielded two questions each. Funding sanctuary cities? No. Reforming the Veterans Administration? Yes.

Still, if there’s one thing the forum underscored, it’s that none of the Republican candidates have been able to stand out in the crowded field — something public-opinion polls have showed for months. The contenders have time to change that before the Aug. 30 primary election. But the lack of pizzazz explains in part why GOP leaders in Congress have made a last-ditch attempt to recruit Rubio to run for re-election.

However, the former presidential candidate has said he won’t. He’s been fundraising for one of the candidates, his friend and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

In fact, Lopez-Cantera made the only reference to Rubio on Thursday night: “Here’s the Marco Rubio moment,” he said, before taking a sip of water. Some people chuckled, remembering Rubio’s infamous swig of water on live television responding to one of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speeches.

Lopez-Cantera, who is from Miami, attended Thursday’s Future Florida U.S. Senate Event, organized by America First USA, along with U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores and Orlando defense contractor Todd Wilcox.

The fifth candidate, Sarasota developer Carlos Beruff, backed out of the forum earlier Thursday due to a “personal situation,” according to organizers. His campaign cited an unspecified “scheduling conflict.” Beruff’s absence Thursday looked fishy to Lopez-Cantera’s campaign manager, Brian Swensen, who said before the event that Beruff should have shown up, barring a family emergency.

Though he wasn’t there, Beruff got hit anyway by some of his rivals — particularly Jolly, who slammed Beruff for proposing that the U.S. temporarily ban immigrants from all Middle Eastern countries except Israel. Jolly noted that Beruff, who is still Cuban American, still wants to treat all Cubans who arrive in the country as refugees.

“Is it the God they pray to, or the color of their skin?” Jolly asked of Middle Easterners “fleeing beheadings and crucifixions. That’s the question Carlos Beruff has to answer.”

DeSantis made a point of touching on key issues for conservatives — undoing the Iran nuclear deal, tackling welfare reform, de-politicizing the IRS — and made no mention of his rivals. He focused instead on Democrats, especially likely presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“The first thing that she did when she was nominated to be secretary of state was set up her own rogue, private email server,” he said. “If the Justice Department doesn’t hold her accountable, then we need to hold her accountable by defeating her in November.”

With Beruff gone, Wilcox claimed the outsider mantle for himself. He derided DeSantis, Jolly and Lopez-Cantera — though not by name — as “career politicians.” Wilcox branded Beruff, who’s donated to candidates for years and been appointed to boards by Gov. Rick Scott, as a “political insider.”

“There’s a movement, a movement under way, a movement that’s sweeping across America, and it’s sweeping across Florida: It’s a movement that’s fueled by a fatigue with career politicians,” Wilcox said. “I’m the only candidate that stands before you that has 27 years of real experience.”

It was a sentiment each of the four candidates acknowledged.

Yet none of them uttered the name of their party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

Herald/Times staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report from Tallahassee.