In Florida primary: Marco Rubio best candidate to unite GOP

As the pivotal Florida primary on March 15 draws near, Floridians should not be stampeded into thinking that it’s all over. In the Republican race, in particular, they have an opportunity to change the course of a deeply discouraging — even embarrassing — campaign narrative by boosting the chances of native son Marco Rubio, the best remaining candidate with a mostly positive message and a practical chance to win the nomination.

Donald Trump would have voters believe his campaign has gained unstoppable momentum, but a deeper look raises doubt.

Despite the big wins, Mr. Trump is not yet on track to secure the nomination, according to a delegate count by the Associated Press. Thirty-five states have yet to be heard from. His negatives remain very high, especially among important sectors of the electorate (80 percent negative among Latinos). In seven of the states up for grabs on Super Tuesday, he received no more than 35 percent.

Two of the states that haven’t voted yet are particularly important: Florida and Ohio, the nation’s biggest swing states, crucial for candidates who want to win the ultimate showdown in November. Both states still have a favorite son in the GOP race. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has remained above the fray throughout, avoiding the taunts and invective, but his poor showing in nearly every race makes him the longest of long shots.

Floridians have a better practical option close to home.

When we recommended Mr. Rubio for the U.S. Senate in 2010, we underlined “the potential to be the kind of statesman Floridians can be proud to call a native son.” His impact on Washington was immediate, and his willingness to partner with Democrats to bring sanity to the immigration system displayed political courage and a willingness to work across the aisle. His impressive leadership skills have been evident since the days when he served as Florida House Speaker.

We disagree with the Cuban-American senator on many issues — abortion, gun control, Obamacare, climate change, diplomacy with Cuba, and have frowned upon his frequent absences in the Senate. Still, he does not occupy the same extremist terrain proudly claimed by Sen. Ted Cruz. He has not led fights to shut down the government, accused his party’s leader in the Senate of working for the other side, or vowed to “carpet bomb” anyone.

Sen. Rubio’s support among party leaders and the faithful makes him the best choice to unite a fractured GOP. His Senate colleagues, especially Republicans, respect him — not so with Mr. Cruz. Among Republican voters who have made up their minds at the last minute, Sen. Rubio is by far the favorite, suggesting that he is the candidate of choice for the most thoughtful.

As the campaign has developed, he has moved to the right — too far for many Floridians, no doubt — but this is a traditional tactic in a long election year. He may well mellow his views later on, but conservatives should have no doubts: He may not be an extremist like Ted Cruz, but his conservative credentials are solid. He’s a consistent favorite among traditional conservative organizations, with a voting record to match.

What Mr. Rubio needs in Florida is a strong win. Without a victory, he’s out. His sole triumph in the Minnesota caucuses is a thin reed upon which to hang the rest of the campaign, but a first-place finish in Florida could put the wind to his back.

Forget about a brokered convention or a “stop Trump” movement. The nominee should be the candidate who wins the hearts and votes of Republican rank-and-file members, not someone the “establishment” anoints. The only way the nominee can win in November is by unifying the GOP and appealing to Democrats and independents.

The best candidate to fill that role is Sen. Marco Rubio.

Tomorrow: The Democratic choice.