OVERLAND PARK, Kansas -- A fire marshal would likely disapprove of the thousands of voters crammed into a hotel ballroom, overflowing down the hall, waiting for Marco Rubio to begin his rally in the Sunflower state ahead of Saturday's Kansas caucuses.
As the Florida senator took the stage on Friday night with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (R), the crowd erupted in applause and chanted his name in an uncharacteristic scene for a candidate considered an underdog in the presidential race.
“Before I begin, a public service announcement, because this has been happening at all of our rallies,” Rubio said, his voice cracking as the crowd continued to cheer. “Don’t lock your knees while you’re standing or you’ll pass out. People have passed out, I just wanted you to know,” he added with a smile.
As Rubio launched into his stump speech, it was clear the first-term senator was restraining himself, trying not to wage another personal attack on Republican front-runner, Donald Trump like he had been doing on the campaign trail recently. One of Rubio’s verbal assaults on the business mogul, saying he has “small hands” -- and implying that it extends to other parts of Trump’s body -- took center stage at the GOP Debate on Thursday in Detroit, drawing criticism for lowering the tone of the nationally important occasion.
“I’ve got to take at least one shot, you’ve got to give me at least one shot on Trump, all right,” Rubio said, in an indication that he was attempting to curb the attacks on his main rival on the stump. “Our next commander-in-chief cannot be Donald Trump because he thinks the nuclear triad is a rock band from the ’80’s. I had to do it, it was so fun."
Rubio won just one state on Super Tuesday, leaving the Florida Republican with a nearly impossible path to the GOP nomination.
The junior senator continued to take on Trump a handful of times throughout the evening, sometimes without even naming him, comparing their stances on several issues, while also throwing in some humor.
“I’m taking this campaign seriously. If you go on my website, we have like real public policy,” Rubio said as the crowd burst into laughter. “I know it’s shocking, but we do… on healthcare, I don’t just talk about the lines around the state, I have a real plan to repeal and replace Obamacare once and for all,” he added, in a clear dig at Trump.
Although Rubio has defended making jokes at Trump’s expense, voters in Missouri have noticed he toned down some of his attacks on the billionaire TV star, sticking mainly with comments comparing policy differences on Friday.
“I think his tone cooled down after last night,” said Nathan Ryan, 18, of Pleasant Hill, Missouri. “He got stuck in some fights in the debate that he really shouldn’t have been in. I think he should attack Trump, but keep it on policy.”
Ryan said he’ll continue to support Rubio at the polls on March 15, but took issue with the way he stooped to Trump’s level in lodging personal attacks.
He will lose it and that means, the consequences of that are a President Hillary Clinton. Marco Rubio on Donald Trump's chances of becoming president
“I think he should have projected that he came out with when he announced, throughout the entire campaign,” Ryan said. “I feel like he’s left that behind to some degree with the personal attacks.”
Although Trump has virtually no political presence in Missouri, Ryan said many people in his community are rallying around the businessman, who has landed only one important endorsement in the state from Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach. Trump canceled his speech at CPAC Friday and said he would hold a rally in Wichita ahead of the Kansas caucuses on Saturday.
“He hasn’t been here at all, but I’m definitely backing Trump,” said Mark Moss, 46. “I like Rubio’s core values, but I feel like he’s part of the establishment.”
Moss said Trump has appealed to the anger he has felt over the past eight years. He feels the reality TV star is the only candidate that could take on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and win in November.
“I think Trump will destroy Hillary in November, I honestly do,” Moss said. “If Trump wasn’t running, Rubio would be my second choice.”
The real estate mogul's reliance on free media coverage to convince voters to support him has worked well in some primary states. However, it has failed in caucus states like Kansas, which often require more organization to turn out voters. So far, four states have held GOP caucuses, and Trump has lost three. David Roustio, 26, said he thinks Rubio will perform well in the Midwestern states.
“I’m not writing off Marco just yet,” Roustio said after the rally. “I think there’s a path forward for him. He’s going to do great in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, some of the Midwestern states, where the highly educated votes are, I think he’s just going to do well, based on talking to my friends, family, relatives, people in my community.”
Roustio acknowledges it will be hard for the Florida Senator to continue in the race if he doesn’t win his home state, which is a winner-take-all delegate contest.
“If he doesn’t take Florida, it will most likely be over,” Roustio said. “I think he’ll do it. He’s enthusiastic and really appeals to young voters. Looking around tonight, this is not a candidate that seems like he’s dropping out of the race anytime soon. Seems like he’s in for the long haul.”
Rubio wrapped up his speech in Kansas, warning voters that if they decide to back Trump, Republicans would likely lose the election.
“Put aside all the other ugly stuff that’s going on in this campaign, he will lose the election,” Rubio said, softening his voice. “There’s no doubt about it. He will lose it and that means, the consequences of that are a President Hillary Clinton. The consequences of a President Hillary Clinton, is that we will become the first Americans ever to leave their children worse off than themselves. So, I ask you to caucus for me, because if you nominate me, I will win and the Democrats know this.”