ST. PETERSBURG — Days after his endorsement of Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio returned Saturday night to the county that helped boost his national ascent.
The rising Republican star and short-lister for vice presidential nominee worked to fire up his base, pushing Medicare reform and assailing the federal government's "big black hole for debt."
Though his speech ended with a shout from the crowd of "Rubio for VP," the would-be-candidate mentioned no such speculation. He barely uttered Romney's name, repeatedly calling him "our nominee" instead.
His keynote speech to the Pinellas County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner drew 500 to a crowded ballroom in the Carillon Park Hilton. Bad weather delayed his flight from Miami for more than two hours until Republican officials dispatched a plane to pick him up.
"It's great to be home, and I do mean home," Rubio said. "This county has meant so much to me in my campaign."
Saying America's military had proved to be the most benevolent power in history, he said the military budget had been "eviscerated" by spending cuts, "a dangerous game of chicken" with national defense.
His speech bounced from the need for Medicare reform and criticism of business regulations to the use of military force in Grenada and praise for Ronald Reagan.
Rubio, 40, won a symbolic push here in 2010, when Pinellas Republicans handed him a straw-poll victory in what was once the loyal home county of opponent Charlie Crist.
A former state House speaker who rode a wave of tea party support to the U.S. Senate in 2010, Rubio has skyrocketed in the last year, landing atop a speculative list for vice presidential nominees.
In a Fox News interview Wednesday, he endorsed Romney, becoming one of the last of the GOP's major players to do so.
Coming the same day a Quinnipiac University poll found Florida voters preferred President Barack Obama over Romney by 7 points, his endorsement struck some as lukewarm.
Rubio defended his endorsement to the Daily Caller this week, saying he was motivated by Obama's open-microphone gaffe with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But he hardly bolstered confidence in Romney when he added: "There are a lot of other people out there that some of us wish had run for president — but they didn't."
Though his nomination as vice president could gain favor among Latino voters and lend some much-needed verve to the Romney campaign, Rubio has seemed ambivalent about being on the ticket.
Still, his backers have been anything but indifferent. A Rubio political committee has already spent more than $40,000 researching potential attacks on his past.
The publication of his memoir, An American Son, was rushed ahead four months to head off a Washington Post reporter's more critical take. (That biography was bumped ahead as well; both will now hit stores June 19.)
There is a precedent for vice presidential candidates playing coy. Sarah Palin was mostly mum before John McCain introduced her at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Joe Biden repeatedly said he didn't want the nod, telling reporters, "I'm not the guy." Dick Cheney headed the search for candidates to team with George W. Bush before deciding on himself.
But just how much Rubio can alter the outcome as a running mate remains to be seen. Former Gov. Jeb Bush called Rubio the best pick for vice president, yet a McClatchy-Marist poll last week found a vice-presidential tap for former Jeb Bush had better odds than a Romney-Rubio ticket, even among Hispanic voters.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]