With Marco Rubio's Florida Defeat, The 'Great On Paper' Candidate Finally Fizzles Out

The senator couldn’t translate his potential into consequential wins.

MIAMI -- It didn’t feel quite like a funeral at Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s primary night party on Tuesday. The atmosphere was more like that of a going-away party no one wanted to attend.

In a sign of how steeply enthusiasm for Rubio had fallen in his home state, the festivities -- if you could call them that -- took place in the cramped atrium adjacent to the empty Florida International University basketball arena.

The supportive crowd that turned out was nowhere near large enough to fill the gym itself, and enthusiasm was lacking, even before Rubio's crushing home-state defeat to Donald Trump and announcement that he was dropping out of the race.

As the extent of Trump’s landslide victory became clear soon after polls closed in most parts of the state at 7 p.m., some Rubio supporters seemed to be half-heartedly holding out hope for a miracle.

Peter Martinez, a campaign volunteer, gazed up at TV screens set to Fox News with a look of near disbelief.

"I can’t understand why they would have those numbers," he said. "It might turn better."

Then, shortly after Rubio took the stage, a pro-Trump protester had to be escorted off the premises. Yes, a Trump supporter actually heckled Rubio’s concession speech. That’s just about the way this campaign has gone.

Rubio’s candidacy had always looked good on paper. When he entered the presidential race in April, he did so as an underdog whose potential was clear.

And with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and other establishment-friendly candidates out of the race, the feeling heading into the late-February and March contests was that Rubio would find a way to be one of the last two candidates standing in the Republican race.

The majority of GOP voters would settle on him -- the clear choice -- after they’d exhausted all other possibilities. They just had to, right?

But the argument for why Rubio would ultimately find success was always flimsy.

The most obvious assets he brought to a crowded Republican field were cosmetic.

He was young and Hispanic in a party whose voter base had become overwhelmingly old and white. He was also energetic, attractive and eloquent, particularly in debate settings -- just the kind of media-friendly politician who could get people’s attentions in an increasingly nationalized election.

But the central, and fatally flawed, component of his case was that Rubio was "acceptable" to most Republican voters. He may not have been the top choice of the mad-as-hell crowd, but the senator who was elected in the tea party wave was very much capable of doling out red meat.

Though Rubio had some early success in spinning massive defeats into moral victories, he was almost unflinchingly consistent in his inability to win. Republicans in 32 states and territories have held primaries and caucuses thus far, and Rubio won just three of them: Minnesota, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

Rubio for a long time benefited from a media narrative that suggested time and again that he was right on the verge of turning things around and locking up the support of the increasingly elusive "establishment" vote, even as the defeats kept coming.

In spite of his struggles, Rubio had two clear opportunities to get back on track.

The first came after than his better-than-expected third-place showing in the Iowa caucuses, when polls showed him on an upward trajectory in New Hampshire.

But in the final debate before the first-in-the-nation primary, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) sunk the proverbial knife into Rubio’s back -- pointing out with devastating clarity in front of a national TV audience that the first-term senator had merely memorized a talking point about how President Barack Obama "knows exactly what he’s doing," repeating the phrase almost word for word several times.

The exchange did nothing for Christie’s flailing campaign, as the New Jersey governor finished with just 7.5 percent of the vote and dropped out of the race shortly thereafter. But it was shattering for Rubio’s hopes, bolstering perceptions that the Floridian was a preprogrammed, walking sound bite.

Rubio’s fifth-place finish in New Hampshire was a significant setback and provided fodder for Trump’s later efforts to label him a "choke artist."

For Christie, who would go on to endorse Trump, the result was sweet revenge against a candidate whose super PAC had undercut him during a December rise in the New Hampshire polls.

But Rubio was able to turn things around -- for a brief period, at least. With a well-timed assist coming from the endorsement of popular Gov. Nikki Haley (R), Rubio eked out an important second-place finish in the South Carolina primary.

The next big moment of his campaign might have come soon thereafter with an endorsement from 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney -- a move that some of Romney’s longtime advisers encouraged him to make and one many expected him to undertake in short order.

But the former Massachusetts governor held back, instead training his fire on Trump, while remaining officially neutral in an increasingly improbable attempt to deny Trump the nomination.

It’d be easy to point to Rubio’s 2013 efforts to spearhead comprehensive immigration reform legislation as the central reason why his candidacy was doomed. But considering the long list of conservative apostasies that Trump has committed throughout his decades in public life, that particular explanation for Rubio’s woes doesn’t suffice.

A more persuasive accounting for his campaign’s fizzling is this: Rubio ran into the same tinsel-haired, foul-mouthed buzzsaw that has befuddled every other Republican candidate who entered the 2016 race with what they believed to be a path to victory.

In the desperate days preceding the March 1 Super Tuesday contests, Rubio briefly attempted to replicate the schoolyard taunts against Trump that the GOP front-runner has employed with startling success against all of his foes.

Predictably, Republican primary voters continued to prefer the real thing to a half-hearted imitation, and Trump continued on his march toward the nomination.

With Rubio not running for re-election in the Senate this year and some buzz about a future race for Florida governor perhaps being hampered by his dismal home-state showing, his long-term political prospects are uncertain.

What’s clear is that his presidential hopes were dashed by the same problem that has befuddled 15 other Republican challengers: an early inclination to underestimate Trump, followed by an utter inability to figure out how to stop him.

Trump, however, now has a tall task ahead of him in rallying to his side the majority of Republican primary voters who’ve backed other candidates.

Lisette Hernandez, of south Miami, is a case in point.

Hernandez works at Florida International University and spent many of her free hours leading up to the primary volunteering for the Rubio campaign.

"I will never give my vote to Trump," she said. "If I had to, I would give my vote to Hillary."

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