Florida Sen. Marco Rubio pitched his dual message of American renewal and electability to Minnesota Republicans on Tuesday, as he looks for states where he might be able to peel off a win against the surging presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.
In a speech to about 1,600 supporters at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Minneapolis, Rubio returned repeatedly to stories of his humble roots and his immigrant parents’ working-class jobs. He said the promise of America that they capitalized on is growing out of reach for many.
“They lived to see all four of their kids have a life better than their own,” Rubio said of his parents. “If we get this election wrong, we will lose that. And then we’re going to have to explain to our kids that we were born in the greatest nation on Earth, and they inherited something less.”
As the GOP presidential field dwindles, Rubio has emerged as the top choice of a growing pool of prominent Republicans, both in Minnesota and nationwide. In recent days, he picked up the backing of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and current U.S. Rep. John Kline.
With Nevada’s Republican caucus on Tuesday night, Trump was looking for his third consecutive victory after handily winning New Hampshire and South Carolina. That’s left Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz locked in a battle to be the main Trump alternative.
Both the Rubio and Cruz campaigns have been organizing in Minnesota for months in anticipation of the state’s March 1 caucuses. Both boast support from prominent Republicans here, and Cruz held a similarly well-attended rally in St. Paul back in December.
Rubio barely mentioned his Republican rivals during his 40-minute speech. But he hit hard on what’s become one of his chief selling points, that he is best-positioned among the Republican candidates to win the general election in November.
“We can’t do any of these things we talk about today if we don’t win the election,” Rubio said. “And that means we have to nominate somebody in the Republican Party who has a chance of winning the election.”
That message clearly resonates with Rubio’s supporters in the Republican Party. Of a half-dozen people in the Hyatt ballroom interviewed for this story, every one first mentioned electability in November as the main reason they back Rubio.
“I think he honestly, out of all the Republicans, has the best chance of winning against the Democrats,” said Trevor Young, a writer and motor coach driver from Prior Lake. Young said he’s unsettled by Trump’s “ups and downs” and concerned by what he called negative campaigning by Cruz.
Young said he sees Trump as increasingly inevitable and is ready to vote for him in November if it comes to that. But Sam Krueger, a sophomore at Bethel University from White Bear Lake, said he won’t pull the lever for Trump.
“He plays on peoples’ fears,” Krueger said of Trump. “He has no respect for other people and that’s not how you do politics. Marco carries himself in a professional way.”
Krueger said he’d consider voting for Sanders, but not Clinton.
Rubio was often loose and lighthearted during his speech — commenting that Minnesota’s not as cold as he expected, bantering with several young kids near the stage and joking about the federal government concealing the truth about alien invasions. He cracked wise about the grueling schedule of the modern presidential campaign: “What day is it? Tuesday?” he asked.
While he spoke at length about renewing America’s promise, Rubio offered little road map for steps he’d take as president beyond immediately repealing a number of President Obama’s executive orders and other actions.
Rubio has promised tax cuts for people at all income levels, but not spelled out how he’d pay for it. He also vowed hefty increases in military spending, citing former President Reagan as his inspiration.
“When I am president of the United States, we are going to undertake a Reagan-style rebuild of the American military,” Rubio said. He also vowed to “repeal and replace Obamacare,” improve medical care for veterans and tackle the rising debt associated with attending college.
“I’m the only Republican who talks about student loan debt all the time,” Rubio said, adding he finally paid off his own college loans just three years ago.
State DFL Chairman Ken Martin criticized Rubio for “backward policies and harmful priorities.” Citing the recent endorsements by Pawlenty and Coleman, Martin said Rubio offered nothing beyond his Republican predecessors.
“We’ve seen firsthand what GOP policies can do to our economy, and we won’t go back,” Martin said.
Rubio’s Minnesota stop was brief, sandwiched between a morning rally in Las Vegas and an evening event in Grand Rapids, Mich. No Republican or Democratic presidential candidates are currently scheduled to swing back through Minnesota before March 1.