Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio unveils Florida support, rallies GOP to take on Democrats

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks at the Sunshine Summit opening dinner on Thursday in Orlando.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks at the Sunshine Summit opening dinner on Thursday in Orlando. Orlando Sentinel

His star in the presidential race on the rise, Marco Rubio dropped in Thursday on one of the groups that knows him best: the Republican Party of Florida.

On the campaign trail, Rubio likes to note that he’s twice defied the Florida GOP establishment: in 2010 when he ran for the U.S. Senate against the sitting Republican governor and now as a candidate in the same race as former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Rubio made sure to remind Republicans — light-heartedly — of his track record Thursday night.

“Five years ago when this party was under different leadership, I couldn’t even get a table, because I happened to be running against the then-sitting governor of Florida for U.S. Senate,” Rubio began, referring to Charlie Crist. “Apparently he’s now running for the Congress as a vegetarian. … Yeah, he’s running out of parties indeed.”

Rubio spoke at the party’s annual Statesman’s Dinner, a sold-out fundraiser that drew nearly 1,000 people on the eve of the Sunshine Summit, a two-day event featuring 13 of the 15 Republicans running for the 2016 presidential nomination. He played the role of motivator to party stalwarts ahead of the 2016 election.

“Tomorrow you’re going to hear from a bunch of candidates running for president that are going to ask you to vote for them, and I’ll be one of them,” Rubio said. (“One out of six Republicans is running for president,” he joked.) “Tonight, I want to talk to you about why the next president needs to be a Republican, because we simply cannot afford another four years like the last eight.”

Rubio spoke for a little more than 20 minutes, without notes, and kept his promise of not explicitly asking Republicans for their vote Thursday night. But he still deployed much of his campaign speech. One of several mentions of Democrat Hillary Clinton prompted boos from the crowd.

Rubio was introduced by a longtime friend, state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez of Miami.

“We’ve shared lots of laughs. We’ve shared special moments. We’ve shared the pain of loss,” she said. “And we’ve even seen our children — our older children — grow up to be teenagers and have their own Instagram accounts, and I can tell you, that is far more scary than running for president of the United States.”

When he took the microphone, Rubio noted he had learned something new: “I had no idea my kids had an Instagram account, so we’re going to have to look into that.”

During his speech, Rubio didn’t name a single of his GOP rivals.

Bush had also been invited to the dinner, but he campaigned instead in New Hampshire. Fans of both Bush and Rubio worked the room in Lake Buena Vista. Many were identifiable by lapel stickers pledging allegiance to one candidate or the other. The two men are scheduled to deliver remarks separately Friday.

Earlier Thursday, Rubio unveiled a list of campaign chairmen in every Florida county, intended as a show of his widening home-state support. Many of them are “new to the political arena,” state co-chair Adam Hasner, a former state lawmaker, said in a statement underscoring Rubio’s appeal to a younger Republican generation. Some of the notable Miami-Dade County backers were familiar, however, including Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez and County Commissioners Esteban Bovo and Rebeca Sosa.

Rubio still lags far behind Bush in endorsements, which Bush has assiduously courted all year. On Thursday, Bush announced more than 130 supporters in Palm Beach County alone. He’s already lined up support from the state’s three Cabinet members, most of the state Senate and more than 300 people in Miami-Dade, both men’s home county.

It has been Rubio’s strategy, though, to roll out his campaign slowly and methodically, in an effort to save money and not peak until just the right moment.