Marco Rubio

In Vegas, Marco Rubio wrestles with latest political spotlight

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio shakes hands at a campaign event Thursday in Las Vegas.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio shakes hands at a campaign event Thursday in Las Vegas. AP

Marco Rubio didn’t want to be on the nation’s political radar. Not this early in the presidential race. Not with so much time left for rivals to take aim at the big target on his back.

Yet here he is, attracting larger crowds and more news reporters and trying to make the most of it — without taking it too far.

“Mr. President,” a man’s question to Rubio began Friday at a Las Vegas country club.

“No, I gotta earn that,” Rubio quickly responded. “Marco, for now.”

It was the second time in less than 24 hours that someone addressed him as commander in chief. On both occasions, the Florida senator answered the same way: Take a breather.

Jeb Bush labeled himself the “tortoise” (the “joyful tortoise,” to be exact) in the 2016 race. But Rubio, the far less known of the two Miami Republicans, was the one who had intended from the get-go to lay low and ride the middle of the packed GOP field until he built enough momentum to break out in early caucuses and primaries come February.

The wild political year defied his plans.

Two solid performances in a pair of primary debates that broke TV-viewership records thrust Rubio into a brighter spotlight than his staff hoped for. In poured demands for prominent interviews and speeches and rallies that reach more voters and financial donors — but also increase the chances that the candidate will make a damaging mistake or peak too soon.

It’s not that Rubio doesn’t need any attention.

When you look at his views compared to Donald Trump, they’re really not too far apart.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democratic National Committee chairwoman

His campaign announced disappointing fundraising numbers Thursday to top political donors gathered at the Bellagio Hotel on the Vegas Strip. Rubio collected about $6 million over the three months that ended Sept. 30 — far less than competitors Ben Carson ($20 million) and Ted Cruz ($12 million), the only two other candidates in the field who have made their fundraising totals public so far. Even Bush, who has fallen in public-opinion polls, may double Rubio’s haul.

The Rubio camp said it did better raking in cash in September and expects a blockbuster October, no doubt buoyed by the senator’s ascendant moment.

Interest in Rubio’s candidacy sparked after the first GOP debate in August. He did his best to quell it, focusing on fundraising in a time when many donors are on vacation and eluding the full force of the media’s glare.

It’s gotten harder to take the same approach after the second debate in September. Rubio’s rivals have emphasized that he’s missed more votes than anyone else in the Senate. Twice in the past week, including Friday in Vegas, Rubio’s staff has kicked out from their events so-called “trackers” — essentially opposition videographers — working for Right to Rise, the political committee backing Bush.

Before Rubio even landed in Nevada, the Democratic National Committee held a preemptive conference call with reporters in which chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Weston congresswoman, disdained Rubio as a “master in self-promotion.”

“When you look at his views compared to Donald Trump, they’re really not too far apart,” she said, citing both candidates’ opposition to same-sex marriage and doubts about climate change.

Sometimes you say something about somebody, and it sticks. I called Rubio a lightweight. I don’t know —it might stick. It might not stick.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump

Trump himself took on Rubio at a Vegas rally Thursday, mimicking the senator’s infamous water-bottle reach when Rubio delivered the 2013 GOP State of the Union response live on television.

“Sometimes you say something about somebody, and it sticks,” Trump said. “I called Rubio a lightweight. I don’t know —it might stick. It might not stick.”

Team Rubio continues to tread carefully. Instead of trying to fill auditoriums like frontrunner Trump, Rubio has kept a schedule of smaller events. The difference is his staff now also books an overflow room.

Thursday night in Summerlin, an upscale Vegas suburb, the extra room wasn’t enough. A few more chairs had to be accommodated by a large TV set outside the clubhouse so everyone could watch.

Rubio delivered his standard campaign speech, old to reporters cramped in the back but new to voters giving Rubio their first look.

“The world isn’t just different — it’s changing faster than ever,” said Rubio, 44, emphasizing his youth and immigrant story. “If we keep electing the same kind of people, the next person in line, the person they tell us to vote for, nothing’s going to change.”

Robert Brandy, a 72-year-old retiree and registered Republican, listened from the back.

“Inspirational,” he concluded.

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