Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio stares down primary pressure at Tampa rally

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., poses for photographs at a campaign rally in Tampa, Fla., Monday, March 7, 2016.
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., poses for photographs at a campaign rally in Tampa, Fla., Monday, March 7, 2016. AP

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz agree on one thing: The Republican presidential primary is down to a two-man race, and voters need to coalesce around the guy who can beat Donald Trump.

“A vote for John Kasich or a vote for Ted Cruz in Florida is a vote for Donald Trump,” Rubio told reporters before a rally at the Tampa Convention Center on Monday. “If you don’t want Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee, you have to vote for Marco Rubio.”

Ted Cruz, campaigning at almost the same time in Mississippi, said much the same thing: “I would note right now that in this race it is clear a vote for any other candidate, a vote for Marco Rubio or a vote for John Kasich, is a vote for Donald Trump.”

The clock is ticking down toward what could be Rubio’s last stand, Florida’s March 15 primary, and good news has been scarce for the senator.

Rubio has won just two of 20 primary contests to date, he has half as many delegates as Cruz, and he is expected to lose Tuesday’s elections in Michigan, Mississippi, Idaho and Hawaii.

“It always comes down to Florida, and it should in many ways because this state symbolizes everything that makes this country so special and unique,” Rubio told a crowd of about 1,000 in a partially filled room in the Tampa Convention Center.

He finds himself in much the same position as former Gov. Jeb Bush did near the end of his presidential campaign, constantly responding to reporters asking if he’s about to suspend his campaign.

“We’re not focused on hypotheticals right now. We’re going to win Florida,” Rubio said when asked yet again if his campaign is over if he loses Florida.

Rubio is being squeezed here by Trump, the frontrunner, and Cruz, who hopes Florida will end Rubio’s campaign and leave the Texas senator as the sole anti-Trump candidate.

“People are realizing that Ted is the only person who can defeat Donald Trump,” said Cruz spokeswoman Alice Stewart, touting 10 Florida campaign offices, 53 county chairs and 10,000 Florida leaders. She suggested the time has come for Rubio to face reality and step aside.

“It’s a tough decision, but if you don’t have a viable path to achieve the delegates you need, you should coalesce behind the true conservative who does,” said Stewart.

A super PAC political committee backing Cruz, Our Principles, on Monday announced a trio of ads attacking Rubio for his support of sugar subsidies, his absenteeism in Washington and his tax plan.

But it’s unclear how serious Cruz allies are about competing in Florida. Two campaigns tracking TV ad purchases in Florida said Our Principles had not reserved time as of Monday afternoon.

A March 3-6 poll of Florida Republicans released Monday by Monmouth University found Trump with 38 percent support, followed by Rubio with 30 percent, Cruz with 17 percent and Ohio Gov. John Kasich with 10 percent. The poll found Rubio leading Trump among Republicans who had already cast their ballots and Trump among those who have not yet voted.

Some 600,000 Florida Republicans already have voted, but extrapolating the trends behind those votes is tricky. On the surface there is little indication that Rubio should have an advantage in the early vote, said University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, noting that Hispanic participation so far is not unusually high in the Republican primary and the county with the highest turnout is southwest Florida’s Lee County, with more than 23 percent.

“I don’t see that area as a hotbed of Marco Rubio supporters,” said Smith, who tracks voting trends on his blog, Electionsmith.com. “Knowing that area, those voters look a lot like Donald Trump, except with not as much money.”

Ann Goergen, a retired insurance company vice president from St. Petersburg who attended Monday’s rally, said Rubio had been hurt by early attacks by Bush and then by Trump and then by the media that criticized Rubio for aggressively fighting back at Trump.

“That’s not his natural demeanor, and the media put a negative connotation,” she said. “I will say at the next debate (Thursday), I hope he goes back to being Marco and talks about issues, because the man is smart and reasonable.”

Rubio suggested Monday he is done with the juvenile attacks such as ridiculing the size of Trump’s hands, but that it was important at the time to stand up to Trump’s bullying.

“I think we made our point,” Rubio said. “That happened over one or two days, and it was important to stand up to him.”

Joanna Reeder, a 29-year-old hairstylist from Oldsmar with a Jesus fish tattoo on her arm, said after Rubio’s rally that she trusted Rubio’s faith in Christianity, “and I like the fact that he is for the people who live paycheck to paycheck, and I like that his family knows what it’s like to struggle.”

But Rebecca Hagelin, a conservative activist from Little Gasparilla Island, said she adored Rubio when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010 but that he broke his campaign promise when he joined with Democrats in supporting a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

“Every person that I know that voted for Marco Rubio for Senate has switched to Ted Cruz,” she said. “I hope he steps out of the race and coalesces behind Ted Cruz before Tuesday, because I think Tuesday is going to be a very humiliating defeat for Marco Rubio and it will be very difficult for him to recover. If he steps out now and supports a candidate who really can beat Hillary Clinton, then he has a chance for a political future.”

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes

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