Marco Rubio did not yell. Marco Rubio did not cut down his opponents. Marco Rubio did not throw any tantrums.
But with just five days left to convince enough people to vote for him, can Rubio – who wants to be the smiling Republican candidate instead of a sneering one – make that leap?
Those who heard Rubio speak Monday at York Technical College say the U.S. senator from Florida can surprise and shock the political world Saturday – either by pulling off an upset win or making a strong showing in South Carolina’s Republican primary.
Many decided after the town hall-type appearance to throw their support behind Rubio.
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“I was basically for him and today solidified that for me – Rubio is the man to lead the country,” said Vicki Morris of Rock Hill. “I started out for (Donald) Trump, but there’s no substance there. Rubio, he has a wide knowledge and is in tune with what the country needs.”
Asked to describe the basic difference between Rubio and Trump, Morris said: “Rubio is not a fruitcake.”
Morris’ husband, Dave, said Rubio comes across as honest – a virtue not all candidates have.
“So many politicians,” he said, “you don’t know whether they are telling the truth, but this guy here today, Rubio, everything he said was believable.”
Rubio touted his Hispanic heritage, how he’s the son of immigrants who dealt with student loan debt and the other things that face regular Americans like him.
Rubio’s surprise third-place finish in Iowa two weeks ago seemed to propel him to the front of the pack before he stumbled to a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire last week.
But supporters say he can provide a “South Carolina Surprise” this weekend – especially after a widely viewed debate Saturday night.
“Rubio’s foreign policy experience and expertise – especially in the fight against ISIS – clearly shows he is the best candidate,” said Diana Mutschink of Rock Hill. “I started out torn between Rubio and Carson, but Rubio shows that he knows far more about foreign policy and defense and is best prepared to protect the country.”
Mutschink also was enamored by Rubio’s “passionate love for this country,” which she believes inspires others like her to take a second look at Rubio.
“He has a patriotism and deep love for this country that is incredible,” Mutschink said.
The difference in crowds was marked, when compared to Trump’s concert-like event last month before 6,500 people at Winthrop Coliseum, or Ted Cruz preaching in front of 2,000 evangelicals Thursday night in Fort Mill.
The more than 400 supporters at Rubio’s event were measured and reserved. He spoke at length, rambling at times, to explain policy stances that most campaign rallies don’t make time for.
Rubio is running third in most South Carolina polls, far behind Trump and bunched up with Cruz and John Kasich, but ahead of Jeb Bush and Ben Carson. And one person who asked a question Monday showed how important that is, telling Rubio, “You are my third choice.”
But for many Republicans who came to see and hear Rubio on Monday, Trump is too much a huckster and Cruz too divisive. Longtime Rock Hill Republican activist Jennifer Wellborn said Rubio shows “class and dignity at a time when this country needs a leader like him.
She called Trump “a sap.”
Rubio said he will not back down from his conservative principles, but he took a conciliatory and at times gentle tone, saying, “I have to be the president of everybody.”
Voters such as Corey Turner of York say Rubio is the only candidate who has the ability to work with Democrats on what ails the country.
“What I saw today is a man who is honest and has great character,” Turner said. “He showed this room today that he can win.”
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065