Marco Rubio

Super Tuesday kicks off Florida presidential primary campaign in earnest

Video: Marco Rubio addresses supporters in Miami on Super Tuesday

Marco Rubio’s entire candidacy now rides on his home state
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Marco Rubio’s entire candidacy now rides on his home state

Marco Rubio would like to forget Super Tuesday.

He had precious little to brag about on the biggest night of the Republican presidential election so far. Donald Trump, the man Rubio spent the better part of a week blasting as a small-fingered con artist, swept most states. Ted Cruz won Texas and Oklahoma. And Rubio came in third more often than he did in second.

“The big loser of the night,” Trump declared.

So the Florida senator did the only thing left: He focused entirely on its home state and its looming March 15 primary.

“Florida, I know you’re ready,” Rubio said in a forceful speech to several thousand supporters gathered in Miami’s Tropical Park. “The pundits say we’re underdogs. I’ll accept that. We’ve all been underdogs. This is a community of underdogs. This is a state of underdogs. This is a country of underdogs. But we will win. And when we do —and when we do, we will do what needs to be done.”

Rubio boasted of recently taking on Trump — an effort that appeared to translate into only one victory Tuesday night — Rubio’s first — in the Minnesota caucuses.

“Just five days ago we began to unmask the true nature of the front-runner so far in this race,” Rubio said. “He loves to talk about polls — we have seen in state after state his numbers coming down and our numbers are going up.”

He didn’t specify where, exactly.

“And two weeks from now, right here in Florida, we are going to send a message loud and clear,” Rubio vowed. “We are going to send a message that the party of Lincoln and Reagan, and the presidency of the United States, will never be held by a con artist.”

It felt like Florida’s primary began in earnest Tuesday night, with Rubio awaiting results at the Ronald Reagan Equestrian Center, Hillary Clinton at downtown Miami’s Ice Palace Studios and Trump at his ornate Palm Beach estate, Mar-a-Lago.

Clinton celebrated an almost complete sweep — rival Bernie Sanders won Colorado, Oklahoma, Minnesota and his home state of Vermont — by zeroing in on Trump.

In Miami, surging Hillary Clinton talks of ‘breaking down barriers’

“We’ve got work to do. But that work is not to make America great again,” Clinton said, alluding to Trump’s campaign slogan. “America never stopped being great. We have to make America whole.”

Earlier in the evening, she received a warm welcome from about 100 black female executives at a BET network summit held at the luxurious St. Regis Bal Harbour resort. Among the guests: Sybrina Fulton, a Clinton supporter and the mother of the late Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin.

Trump, for his part, called himself a “unifier” who would grow the GOP as its nominee — a title he seems increasingly likely to claim.

“I feel awfully good,” he told reporters. Asked if a rumored formal endorsement from Gov. Rick Scott would come soon, Trump said, “I don’t know.”

All three candidates competed for media coverage in Florida’s local TV markets. More than half a million voters have already voted by mail, and in-person early voting started Monday.

No one faces more Florida pressure than Rubio. He’s predicted he’ll win, period — the bare minimum expected for candidates in their own states. Losing would effectively end his campaign.

Three recent Florida polls show Rubio trailing Trump by as many as 20 percentage points.

Rubio’s Washington-based campaign opened five offices across Florida in recent days, including a Miami state headquarters. His allied super PAC, Conservative Solutions, started airing TV ads, including one in Spanish promoting Rubio as “one of us.”

“There is no doubt that any candidate who cannot win his home state has real problems,” Cruz told reporters Tuesday before voting in Houston, presumably for himself.

Trump won from Alabama to Massachusetts, from the deeply red South to the more moderate Northeast. His victories in states like Georgia and Tennessee cut into Cruz’s strategy to build a so-called southern firewall — a result foretold by last month’s South Carolina primary, where evangelical Christian voters backed the twice-divorced Trump over the son-of-a-minister Cruz.

Team Rubio had tried to cast Tuesday as Cruz’s last stand. But the Texas senator’s wins and runner-up positions could bolster his argument that he’s best-positioned to challenge Trump. The primary calendar now turns to states less likely to embrace Cruz’s strident brand of conservatism, but why would the winner of three states (Cruz also won Iowa) cede the not-Trump mantle to Rubio, who hadn’t won any as of late Tuesday?

Rubio won Minnesota and took second in Virginia.

It’s not just Cruz who will keep anti-Trump support from coalescing around Rubio. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson remain in the race, with Kasich competing with Trump late Tuesday in Vermont. Kasich has targeted Michigan, which votes next Tuesday, and his delegate-rich home state of Ohio, which votes the same day as Florida.

Rubio had taken a new, urgent tone in recent days, when he unabashedly began pounding Trump. The candidate who had pledged to never “embarrass” supporters and to run a campaign that would make his four young children “proud,” teased Trump over his small… hands.

“Every now and then, someone like that needs a taste of their own medicine,” Rubio said earlier Tuesday. His campaign emailed backers acknowledging the rhetoric had become “silly.”

Rubio’s assault risked being too little, too late. It began less than a week before Super Tuesday, when many voters had already started casting ballots or decided on their candidate.

But Rubio nevertheless succeeded in getting into Trump’s head, for what that was worth.

“He said I have small hands — actually I’m 6-3, not 6-2 — but he said I had small hands,” Trump said Tuesday at a rally in Columbus, Ohio. “They’re not small, are they?” (“I’ve always had people say, ‘Donald, you have the most beautiful hands,’” he added.)

If Rubio didn’t notch a Super Tuesday win, Trump told Fox News on Tuesday morning, he should drop out.

Rubio countered he would campaign “in all 50 states” — even if that meant getting in his gray Ford F-150 truck, as he did as a lowly U.S. Senate candidate in 2010, and driving himself.

Miami Herald staff writers Amy Sherman, David Smiley and Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated which voters had already cast ballots in the Florida election. It's more than half a million voters, not Republicans.

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