MIAMI — Sen. Marco Rubio strained to be heard in his hometown on Monday night, where he held the final event of his Florida campaign and potentially his presidential run.
The microphone sparked and crackled at the touch. So, taking a page from George W. Bush, he grabbed a megaphone to address the modest crowd who gathered to hear him speak on a basketball court in the neighborhood where he was raised.
“I will always carry with me the hopes and dreams of the generations who made the dreams of mine,” Rubio told the overwhelmingly Latino audience.
All signs point to Rubio losing Florida on Tuesday, and with it any chance at becoming the nominee. He’s coming off a string of lopsided defeats and his support is eroding in state and national polls alike.
But if Rubio is going down, he’s going down in extremely compelling fashion.
Breaking from the rigidly disciplined and unflappable style that’s characterized his campaign until now, Rubio has used his final days to offer an elegiac and nuanced critique of America in the age of Trump.
“My whole life I’ve been told being humble is a virtue, and now being humble is a weakness and being vain and self-absorbed is somehow a virtue,” Rubio told an audience of 1,200 in West Palm Beach on Monday evening. “My whole life I have been told no matter how you may feel about someone, you respect everyone because we are all children of the same God. Now being respectful to one another is considered political correctness.”
The night before, he lamented in Melbourne that “we are now a nation where people hate each other.”
In Rubio’s telling, America is suffering from a “disintegration of our culture” in which rising frustrations and decreasing inhibitions now threaten the core of democracy. Trump has harnessed it into what is now, as Rubio puts it, “a frightening, grotesque, and disturbing development in American politics.”
“There's a broader issue in our political culture in this country, and this is what happens when a leading presidential candidate goes around feeding into a narrative of anger and bitterness and frustration,” a visibly shaken Rubio told reporters in a press conference on Saturday after Trump’s chaotic Chicago rally. “I think we all need to take a step back and ask ourselves, are we contributing to this?”
No one has been spared in his assessment. He’s criticized himself for stooping to Trump’s level with attacks on his rival’s physical appearance. He’s asked the media to consider whether non-stop cable coverage of Trump abetted his rise. He’s accused President Obama of widening divisions and anti-Trump protestors of raising tensions. He’s criticized Sen. Ted Cruz for embracing Trump early on rather than distancing the conservative movement from him.
“Every major institution in our society has failed us,” Rubio said Saturday. “Higher education has failed us, organized religion has failed us, the media is failing us, politicians and political parties are failing us, government is failing us. Every major institution we once relied on are failing us over the last 20 years and people are frustrated.”
But through it all, Rubio’s made clear that his case was ultimately about one person and one person alone.
“The left bears responsibility as well, but I am telling you that this boiling point that we have now reached has been fed largely by the fact that we have a front-runner in my party who has fed into language that basically justifies physically assaulting people who disagree with you,” Rubio said.
His comments resonated with supporters in Miami on Monday.
“It’s sad to say, but people are drawn more to money and power than values and faith,” Roxana Millet-Romero, who brought her teenaged children to Rubio’s rally, told MSNBC. “I agree with Rubio when he says the election will define the road our country takes.”
Rubio’s hardly unblemished. If we’re to believe Obama heightened tensions by being too hard on the GOP budget, which Rubio cited as a prime example, then the Florida senator sent them through the roof by repeatedly arguing that the president “deliberately weakened America.” Cruz hugged Trump close, but Rubio also faced frequent criticism for failing to confront the front-runner earlier. Last month, Rubio slammed Obama for delivering a speech on tolerance at a mosque, which he said was “pitting people against each other.”
But Rubio’s message still comes across as heartfelt and worth listening to, even if the messenger hasn’t always lived up to its ideals. In recent weeks, he’s taken to delivering a robust defense of Muslims not only in America, but around the world, a surprising move in a primary in which candidates frequently compete for the toughest sound bite against radical Islam.
“If you go to any national cemetery, especially Arlington, you're going to see crescent moons there,” Rubio said in last week’s debate. “If you go anywhere in the world, you're going to see American men and women serving us in uniform that are Muslims.”
This will not be remembered as a banner year for tolerance in the Republican Party, but Rubio’s final rally of the day was in its own way memorable. As he addressed the largely Cuban crowd in Spanish, supporters broke out into chants of “USA! USA! USA!” The senator cracked jokes about bringing a supply of Cuban coffee and guavas to the White House with him.
The scene mattered to David Perera and Javi Ortiz, two 17-year-olds who came to see the first candidate they had ever volunteered for address their community.
“We first met him in the eighth grade,” Perera said.
“He gave a speech on human trafficking,” Ortiz recalled. “Then he went and passed a bill on it. He didn’t just say something to us to say it.”
Ortiz’s parents escaped Cuba on a raft. Perera was born in Cuba and arrived in America as an infant. His parents still haven’t told him how they got there.
“Seeing a guy who went through the same thing – it’s big,” Ortiz said.
Both said they were glad to see Rubio’s recent speeches abandoned his nastier insults against Trump, even if they regarded him as racist and inflammatory.
“It wasn’t him,” Ortiz said.
“That’s what the media wanted,” Perera said. “Now he’s more serious. He’s more presidential.”