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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Marco Rubio wavers on supporting Donald Trump as nominee, after "frightening, grotesque" scenes at Trump rallies



LARGO — Sen. Marco Rubio, visibly shaken by what he called  "frightening, grotesque and disturbing" images before a cancelled Donald Trump rally in Chicago, on Saturday in Tampa Bay wavered on his promise to support Trump if he wins the nomination.

"I don't know," Rubio told reporters when asked the morning aftter concerns about violence scrubbed a Trump rally if he stood by his pledge to support whover wins the nomination.

“I already talked about the fact that I think Hillary Clinton would be terrible for this country, but the fact that you’re even asking me that question … I still, at this moment, intend to support the Republican nominee," he said, and then appeared to choke up. "But it's getting harder every day.”

RELATED: Rise and stall: The political trajectory of Marco Rubio

Rubio, 44, spoke to roughly 250 people people at Beckwith Electric in Largo, lamenting that the tone of today's politics has sunk to the level of "Twitter trolls" and blog commenters. The media, which rewards sensational attack politics with more coverage deserves blame, he said, as do the  protesters and "professional agitators" who disrupt political rallies and stifle speech, as they did in Chicago.

But Trump also has to take responsibility, Rubio said.

"We have a major presidential candidate that basically encourages people in the crowd to beat up on people that heckle and protest against him. That's what's happening, and don't tell me that it's not because it is. ...The other day a guy sucker punched someobody at one of his events," said Rubio, suggesting that if Trump is the nominee he will define the Republican Party and conservatism for a generation of young Americans.

"This is what it's going to mean to people to be a conservative. Let me tell you who a real conservative was. Ronald Reagan was a real conservative. Is there anything about Donald Trump that reminds you of Ronald Reagan?"

Rubio also made quick stops Saturday in Pasco, Hillsborough and Polk counties, and at his morning rally in Pinellas  he was at his best — passionate and funny — even as he did sound like a candidate brimming with confidence.

Most signs point to his campaign headed toward a final defeat in his home state primary Tuesday. Vendors selling Rubio campaign buttons Saturday slashed their prices from three for $10 to 10 button for $10 to get rid of inventory before his expected withdrawal from the race after Tuesday. More than half a dozen polls released in the last week show Rubio trailing Trump among Florida Republicans by as little as 6 percentage points to as mch as 23, with the average compiled by showing Rubio trailing by nearly 15 percentage points.

"It always comes down to Florida, and I want you to know for me it was always going to come down to Florida anyway," he told the supporters in Largo, noting that Florida has a winner-take-all primary with 99 delegates at stake.  "If I win Florida by one vote I get all 99 delegates, and if I don't, I get none. That's how high the stakes are."

Mostly, though, Rubio stressed the danger of Trump becoming the standard bearer of the Republican Party.

"The job of a true leader is not to stoke people's anger. The job of a true leader is not to ... make people more angry so they vote for me instead of someone else. Because when you do that there are consequences. There are consequences to that and they are playing out before our very eyes," he said. "I can't tell you how sad I was to see images from Chicago last night. The world turned on their televisions and saw images that made America look like the Third World."

Rubio had been pressing a "Never Trump" message for Republicans, but undercut that in recent debates by first repeating his pledge to support Trump if he wins the nomination and then Thursday night by generally avoiding strong attacks on Trump when standing next to him at the GOP debate. When Rubio recently spent several days mocking Trump on personal issues, however, he saw a strong backlash.

"When he started in trying to act like Trump, that really hurt him. A lot of my friends said that," Frances Stollmach of Clearwater said.

[Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2016 3:07pm]


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