Four days before the Florida presidential primary, Marco Rubio was already being asked about his next race.
“Senator Rubio, if this campaign does not end with you winning the nomination, is the door open to you running for governor in Florida?” wondered a CNN reporter Friday, the morning after the last debate.
“I – I’m running for president of the United States,” Rubio sputtered. “I haven’t even thought about what I’m having for lunch today, much less what I’m going to run for in two years or nothing at all.”
It was an exchange that jarringly displayed Rubio’s desperate situation in the 2016 nominating fight. The last four polls of the contest in the Sunshine State show him trailing Donald Trump by 17 to 24 percentage points, meaning that even if the projections are significantly off, Rubio’s best chance at a victory in his home state is a squeaker and a prayer. And even if he pulls off one of the biggest upsets of the year, landing all of Florida’s 99 delegates, the question then quickly becomes: Where else can he win?
On top of that, it’s not just reporters who are prematurely speculating what’s next for the 44-year-old Cuban-American who embodied so much hope for the future of the Republican Party. The buzz among party regulars from Tallahassee to Miami is whether Rubio will try to rebound from his presidential loss with a run for governor in 2018, when Gov. Rick Scott is term-limited.
“It’s not coming from his folks directly, but it is talked about a lot among the consultant class who are tied in with his team around the state,” says Christian Ziegler, a state GOP committeeman in Sarasota.
Rubio came to a synagogue here Friday to make the case that Trump’s neutral position in the decades-long struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians exposed him as dangerous and unsophisticated when it comes to global affairs.
“Presidents do not get a honeymoon period when it comes to foreign policy,” he said. “Donald Trump is not ready for the test. We cannot afford to have the commander-in-chief and the next president of the United States to be someone who simply does not have the basic knowledge, not to mention the competency or the temperament, to lead this country at such a dangerous time.”
He has prosecuted a substantive case against Trump all around the state in the closing week before primary day, planting himself in Florida and conducting what looks more like a frenetic gubernatorial run than a national effort.
His only hope is to surprise here. If he does not, he will become the first 2016 candidate to lose his home state, rendering him with little to no rationale to soldier forward.
“I intend to see this race through to the end, I intend to be the nominee. If that doesn’t work out, I told everybody very clearly: In January of next year, I will either be president of the United States or I will be a private citizen. And if I never hold elected office again, I’m comfortable with that. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen two or four years now. But I have no plans, no thoughts, no contemplation, no meetings, nothing about any future political run of any sort,” he stressed.
Theories about why Rubio – with all his natural political talent, inspiring biography and youthful zest – didn’t quite work are bountiful.
First and foremost is that his aforementioned attributes too closely matched those of Barack Obama, another fresh-faced senator with rhetorical gifts and generational appeal. Running in a party that so abhors Obama required a clean break from him not just ideologically, but stylistically. Rubio turned out a bit too smooth for the moment.
His flip-flop on immigration policy – once supporting bipartisan legislation providing a path to citizenship before bending to the demands of his party’s base and deeming it unworkable – reinforced the suspicion that he was just another calculating politician soaked with ambition.
In Florida, he turned around – after winning a Senate seat in 2010 – and ran so quickly for president he had barely established a power base, which explains his precarious position against Trump here today.
Detractors are quick to remind that Rubio only won his seat in a three-way race with 49 percent of the vote. Add up Charlie Crist’s 30 percent and Kendrick Meek’s 20 percent and it reveals that a majority of voters actually chose an option other than Rubio.
Rubio’s story and victory was lapped up by national media – Time magazine famously slapped him on its cover and elevated him as the GOP’s “savior” – but he had barely begun to nurture relationships in this megastate with 10 media markets before he started casting his eyes on the White House.
And in a state with many retirees from the Northeast and Midwest, there’s less loyalty ascribed to the favorite son, especially one who has only been in office five years. Add to it that Trump’s second home is Florida and Rubio’s predicament isn’t so surprising.
At an event last week in Hialeah, Florida – which boasts the highest percentage of Cuban-Americans of any city in the country – Rubio stood on a stage propped up inside the end zone of a football field and told his adoring but sparse crowd, “It was always going to come down to Florida.”
Former Rep. Lincoln Diaz Balart quoted Yogi Berra to stress, “The game isn’t over til it’s over.”
After the rally, in a taped interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, Rubio appeared eager to repent for his sins that had tarnished his reputation. He said his children were embarrassed by his jokes about Trump’s spray tan and small hands. His wife didn’t like it either.
“I don’t think it reflected well on my faith,” he acknowledged. “That’s not who I am.”
It was a sign that Rubio had come to terms with the extraordinarily unorthodox campaign season he was in, that he had learned a hard lesson about toiling in the mud and that he wanted his reputation back.
The truth is there may have been nothing Rubio could’ve done to change his fate against a candidate rewarded for shattering every political rule in the playbook.
And even Rubio’s own supporters were coming to terms with that.
“I would love for him to win, but I don’t think realistically he can beat Trump right now,” says Jose Fernandez, a 46-year-old Rubio supporter who attended the Hialeah rally.
Many on both sides of the aisle in Florida see a bright future for Rubio no matter what he chooses to do next. The political bench on both sides is so thin it would be silly to write him off in the future, even if he gets throttled by Trump Tuesday night.
Fernandez will loyally stick with Rubio until the end. He takes great pride in how far a fellow Cuban-American has ascended in the nation’s politics. But tellingly, his second choice to Rubio isn’t the other Cuban-American in the race, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
He would slide his support over to Trump.
“The voters are getting tired of established politicians. People are getting fed up with them because they’re not delivering what they’re promising. And Trump,” he pauses for a second. “He’s a businessman first.”