Rubio in Twilight at Florida Appearances

Rubio in Twilight at Florida Appearances
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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ORLANDO—When he launched his campaign at Miami’s historic Freedom Tower nearly a year ago, Marco Rubio was full of optimism and hope. Armed with a compelling immigrant story and a youthful face, the Florida senator pitched himself as the generational change agent the Republican Party was believed to have craved in hopes of preventing yet another general election presidential loss.

"Yesterday is over, and we are never going back,” he said, railing against leaders of the past to cheers from a hometown crowd.

That day now seems like a relic itself. The campaign has since been dominated by a candidate offering a different kind of change, one who has shaken the political system and the GOP to its core.

Now, Rubio returns home to Miami Monday for an election-eve rally bruised, battered, and saddened by that course of events. His style of politics is considered by many Donald Trump supporters as belonging to the days of old. He finds himself something of a stranger in his own land, lagging 18 points behind Trump in Florida, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. A state that once boosted his underdog political aspirations might now signal the demise of his presidential campaign. What's more, it is Trump who is taking credit for bringing new people into the party and boosting turnout in the primaries.

That once-unthinkable reality was made plain Sunday night. As Rubio spoke to a couple hundred volunteers and supporters at his Orlando office, the front-runner hosted an outdoor, general-election sized rally of several thousand. The billionaire businessman scrapped plans for an additional event in Florida in favor of campaigning in Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich holds a small lead. The takeaway was that the Sunshine State might already be a foregone conclusion.

Still, Rubio crisscrossed his home state over the weekend in a final effort to deny Trump victory in Florida--which will award Tuesday's winner all of its 99 delegates--with the fervor and animation of his earlier days. But he was also publically grieving, and almost tormented by what has come to pass.

"I’m sad. I’m sad for this country," Rubio said at a press conference that went viral for its humanity. "This is what a culture and society looks like when everyone says whatever the heck they want. It’s called chaos. It’s called anarchy. And that’s what we are heading towards."

The comments marked one of the most humbling moments of the cycle, particularly for a candidate criticized as robotic, and they came in response to a weekend of violence or threatened violence at Trump rallies in other states.

Rubio called the video of the tumult "Third World images" and lambasted Trump for a "dangerous style of leadership" that stokes anger and fear. "Donald Trump as our nominee is going to shatter and fracture the Republican Party and the conservative movement," he said. "We’re going backwards here. This is a frightening, grotesque and disturbing development in American politics."

Asked if he could still support Trump as the Republican nominee, Rubio sighed. "It's getting harder every day," he said.

The sentiments continued through campaign stops on Sunday. "We are now a nation where people hate each other," he said at a campaign event at The Villages, a well-known retirement community. "We’ve got to get rid of this idea that just being polite is being politically correct."

"Embrace what made us great to begin with," he urged. "Embrace leaders who do not ask you to give them your vote on fear and hopelessness."

The sadness and near disbelief over the state of affairs was palpable among some Rubio supporters, as well.

"He’s realistic and solution-oriented, but at the same time he is inspirational. And you would think that would be a really good message, because of the Trump factor right now," Jan McCartney, a librarian from Ocala, said of Rubio. "And the saddest thing is that Trump maybe commands [just] 39 percent. ... It’s not a representation of the party."

Asked if she could support Trump as the nominee, McCartney was unequivocal. "No. And I never thought I’d say that, because I know that’s probably a vote for Hillary. But I can’t. I can’t do it. My personal moral compass won’t allow me to do that," she said. "It’s stunning. Just stunning."

Jimmy Quinn, an electrical engineer and a Rubio supporter from Gainesville, was conflicted. "We’re really debating that and praying over it," he said of whether he and his family could ever support Trump. "Right now we’re not sure."

Tuesday's results will help determine whether Trump has a path to claiming the 1,237 delegates necessary for the nomination. If Kasich wins Ohio, or if Rubio pulls an upset Florida, the contest will no doubt be prolonged, possibly to a contested convention, which Kasich and others are aiming for. Over the weekend, the Rubio campaign urged supporters in Ohio to back the Buckeye State governor there, a remarkable request that underscored how difficult and complicated overtaking Trump has become.

The call irked Kathleen Konczal, a retiree from The Villages who came to hear Rubio speak. "I understand they don't want Trump, but that's not what the Washington elites are supposed to do. They are supposed to go with the people," she said, noting that her daughter plans to support Trump.

Konczal said she was undecided about whom to support, but admitted she would likely choose Trump because he is already leading. "As much as I don't want Trump, I don't want the split in this party. I don't want to go to the convention and have this split," she said. "If I thought Rubio could take this all the way to the presidency, he would have my vote. But I don't see that."

Rubio's road from the candidate Democrats feared most to his imperiled status now has been riddled with ups and downs. His soaring campaign message and debate skills were offset by other issues. He had had a leadership role in a comprehensive immigration bill in a political environment where Trump promised a "big, beautiful wall" along the Mexican border, for example. Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and others were relentless rivals. Critics say Rubio's appeal was too broad and lacked a solid base of support. And, most recently, his personal attacks on Trump backfired because they deviated too far from his brand.

One of the more devastating blows revealing the changed climate came in South Carolina. There, days before the primary, Rubio campaigned with Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott. The diverse group, reminiscent of the party's goals to be more inclusive and, in some ways, progressive, dubbed themselves the new faces of conservativism. But voters there chose Trump; his victory overwhelming enough to have won all of the state’s 50 delegates.

Still, Rubio is holding out hope for Florida, or at least the GOP at large.

"We are not going to allow the Republican Party to fall into the hands of someone who is going to get crushed in November," he told supporters in a brief rally at his campaign office in Orlando. "We're not going to allow the conservative movement to be hijacked." But the evidence seemed to suggest it already has been.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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