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Imagine the tenor of 2016 with Marco Rubio as the GOP nominee

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at the Florida GOP Victory dinner in Tampa on Saturday. (LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times )

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at the Florida GOP Victory dinner in Tampa on Saturday. (LOREN ELLIOTT | Times )

TAMPA

How many of the Republicans gathered Saturday night in Tampa, I wonder, had the same thought I did as Marco Rubio spoke to the annual state GOP Victory Dinner.

Imagine how different things could have been if they nominated Rubio for president instead of Donald Trump.

Instead of a nominee talking about America as if it were heaving its last, dying gasps, they would hear optimism and idealism.

"Let there be no doubt that we are an extraordinary nation," U.S. Sen. Rubio said, acknowledging the deluge of bad news at home and abroad lately. "Yes America has problems. It has more problems than it should because of eight years of Barack Obama. But ask yourself this question: Who would you rather be? What nation on Earth would you trade places with right now? Would you rather be China? Would you rather be any other nation on Earth?"

Instead of downplaying and debating whether their nominee is a sexual assaulter or merely a pig, Republicans would have an election far more focused on Hillary Clinton's record and agenda.

Instead of talking about their nominee as the lesser of two evils, Republicans could hold up the election of this youthful Cuban-American son of a maid and bartender as evidence of America's greatness.

"Every day I marvel at the notion that someone whose father came to this country with nothing, knew no one . . . with a third-grade education, was able to own a home and retire with dignity and leave all four of his children better off than himself — and one of them is only one of 100 people to serve in the Senate of the most important nation in all of human history," Rubio said.

Instead of talking about poll after poll showing their nominee losing, I strongly suspect Republicans would be touting polls showing Rubio beating Clinton.

It's safe to assume change trumps the status quo — unless the change candidate manages on too many days to come off as a shallow and volatile.

Illegally hacked emails from the Clinton campaign dribbling out through Wikileaks clearly illustrate how Florida's junior senator worried them as a potential general election opponent.

"He gives a good speech, and sounded much more reasonable, populist and accessible than much of the rest of the GOP field. Felt more like an inspiring Democratic speech than a GOP candidate," one campaign aide wrote in April 2015 of Rubio's presidential announcement speech.

Clinton pollster Joel Benenson wrote in February 2015: "I'm beginning to worry more about Rubio than the others. He's playing this very smart — only one who didn't duck like a chicken s---on the Q of whether POTUS (Obama) loves America."

Florida reporters most familiar with Rubio were the most skeptical about his candidacy. We know better than most how he can be just as calculating and cautious as Hillary Clinton.

But most of us also recognize Rubio is a once-in-a-generation political talent with a great story and broad appeal. Trump has proved to be a gift to Clinton. Rubio, disciplined and smart, would have been a giant barrier.

Maybe she'll find out in 2020.

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

Imagine the tenor of 2016 with Marco Rubio as the GOP nominee 10/18/16 [Last modified: Monday, October 17, 2016 7:46pm]
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