PURCELLVILLE, Va. - Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) strategy for winning the GOP presidential nomination is simple: please everyone.
Shouldn't be that hard, right?
Rubio was certainly giving it his all on Sunday, delivering a punchy and at times genuinely funny address to voters in Purcellville, an exurban town on the outskirts of the Washington, D.C. metro area. For a guy who only recently was accused of being too wooden and was trailed by a Democratic-allied operative in a robot costume, it was a remarkable turnaround.
When a protester appeared behind Rubio, sporting a coat hanger and a sign that read "MARCO RUBIO EMPTY SUIT," the candidate wasted no time in vamping, quite effectively, on the interruption.
"'Empty suit,'" Rubio remarked, clearly enjoying himself, "at least my suit wasn't made in China!" -- a not-so-subtle jab at Donald Trump's clothing line. The crowd roared with approval.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the valedictorian of Trump University!" Rubio continued as the protester was led out.
Rubio's funny, soundbite-heavy, good-for-all-ages shtick couldn't have come too soon, as the presidential race shifts from the retail politics of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to the more mass media-centered national primary campaign. Rubio's funny jabs at Trump -- and they were genuinely funny, not just low-expectations funny -- are the sort of thing he'll need to keep the attention of a media that has been ensorcelled by front-runner Donald Trump's bombast for the last eight months.
"This guy bankrupted a casino," Rubio said, not inaccurately. "How do you bankrupt a casino?"
This guy bankrupted a casino. How do you bankrupt a casino? Marco Rubio on Donald Trump
And if Rubio still has a shot at securing his party's nomination -- and it's an increasingly slim one -- he'll have to pick off enough voters from his populist, conservative and establishment opponents to make the race competitive, or at least deprive Trump of enough delegates to force a brokered convention. It's a task that requires such message discipline and political dexterity that sticking the landing would basically make Rubio the Kerri Strug of American politics.
That Rubio had already accomplished one practically unheard-of thing -- being a funny Republican -- certainly suggested he might, might be up to the task.
His schedule on Monday was a zig-zag through Virginia's politically diverse terrain. Patrick Henry College, a conservative Christian university catering to mostly home-schooled students, presented an opportunity for Rubio to appeal to a right-wing constituency while also addressing more moderate voters from the Washington suburbs.
And while the introductory remarks from Patrick Henry's president, Jack Haye, and former Virginia senator and governor George Allen played to the conservative crowd, employing the faith and "freedom"-centric rhetoric of the tea party, Rubio's remarks were somewhat more tempered. He stuck mostly to bread-and-butter Republican issues like national security, deregulation and hating on Hillary Clinton, sneaking in a couple of references to the Second Amendment for good measure.
This sort of stump speech was music to the ears of attendees like Colleen Osinski, of Prince William County, who hoped a reactionary figure like Trump or Texas Senator Ted Cruz wouldn't be the party's nominee.
"I like that he compromised [on immigration]," said Osinski. "The way our government works, you need someone who will be willing to be reasonable and compromise."
Osinski was one of a number of less reactionary supporters at the rally who expressed relief that Rubio was finally attacking Trump's record, but insisted she didn't want to see Rubio mirror Trump's adolescent taunts and recriminations.
Indeed, Rubio kept most of his Trump broadsides on the level, abandoning the below-the-belt attacks he briefly employed on Friday, when he suggested to a crowd in Dallas that the reality TV star had wet his pants during Thursday's debate in Houston. Instead, he focused on Trump's spotty business record, the murky ethics of Trump University and struck more populist tones by bemoaning immigrant laborers employed in Trump's properties.
"He needs to point out that Trump is hollow," said Laura Russo, 51, of Ashburn. "He needs to not just make insults like making fun of his spray tan or his hair -- he needs to get to the root of why Trump is not qualified. I'm from New Jersey; I've known about Trump since I was young."
"He had to show that he can stand up and fight and go toe-to-toe with Trump," said Lee Lowder, 39, of Waterford, "and he didn't do that until the last debate. I wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for the last debate."
I've actually lost sleep that I might not vote at all if Trump is the nominee. Colleen Osinski, Virginia voter
Rubio continued that tactic in Richmond, the state's capital and a rich source of the establishment voters that he so desperately needs. Trump, Rubio quipped, believed that the "Nuclear Triad," the term for America's air, land and sea nuclear delivery systems, "is a punk rock band."
But for all of Rubio's newfound energy on the trail, he is falling behind Trump by a considerable margin and recent polling shows it's still very much Trump's race to lose. Concern about the Republican Party's future and its prospects for November were very much on the minds of Rubio's supporters.
"I'd be really embarrassed if it were Trump," said Colleen Osinski. "I've actually lost sleep that I might not vote at all if Trump is the nominee."
"I've never voted Democrat in my life and Trump would drive me to vote for Hillary," added Russo. "I would vote for her over Trump because I believe that Trump would destroy our country."
CORRECTION: This article previously identified the president of Patrick Henry College as Gene Veith; he is Jack Haye.
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