Marco Rubio's awkward Donald Trump dance continues

Published October 4 2016
Updated October 5 2016

It was the most-watched presidential debate in history, 84 million people tuning in to see Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton clash for the first time.

What did former presidential candidate and current U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio think?

"I didn't see it guys," the Florida Republican told reporters last week. "I was on an airplane."

Two days later, Newsweek published a report asserting that a company Trump controlled violated the U.S. embargo against Cuba. "The article makes some very serious and troubling allegations," Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, said in a statement. "I will reserve judgment until we know all the facts and Donald has been given the opportunity to respond."

Rubio was more cautious in an interview on ESPN's Capital Games podcast. "Well first, I did read the stories about the story. I haven't read the actual story," he said. "I've had articles written about me that aren't 100 percent accurate, so I need to see what their response is. And this is something they're going to have to give a response to. I mean it was a violation of American law if that's how it happened. And so it's important to know the facts. And you know the benefit of the doubt."

So goes Rubio's awkward balancing act with Trump. He conspicuously avoids the GOP standard-bearer but is careful not to alienate the significant support Trump is drawing in Florida.

Since officially capturing the nomination in July, Trump has made more than 10 visits to Florida. Rubio co-appearances: 0.

About as close as Rubio came to embracing Trump was a speech in Sarasota in late July when he said, "We have got to come together as a party. … We have to make sure that Donald wins this election."

Even that seemed like a scripted line designed less to stand with Trump than to show GOP activists that Rubio stood with them.

The presidential primary showed Rubio's true feelings. He blasted the New Yorker as a "con man" who lacked conservative principles and had no real solutions. He mocked the size of Trump's hands. Rubio says he stands by his criticism, even though he did apologize to Trump for the hand stuff, a bizarre departure for such a careful politician.

Rubio also readily notes he consistently said he would support the Republican nominee. But instead of heaping praise on Trump, Rubio says his aim is to oppose Clinton at all costs.

This has become a default stance for numerous high-profile Republicans. Some, like Rubio, could run for president in 2020 if Trump loses. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas recently adopted the Rubio posture of endorsing from a distance, a startling reversal for a man who took the podium at the GOP convention and refused to endorse Trump, drawing a chorus of boos.

Democrats — and some Republicans — have cast Rubio as an opportunist without a spine. "Last week, news broke that Donald Trump violated Marco Rubio's signature policy issue, the Cuba embargo," the campaign of Democratic Senate candidate Patrick Murphy said in a release Monday. "In the days since, the absent senator has applied his patented no-show approach."

Still, polls show Rubio is threading the needle. If the election were today, he'd win Florida even as Trump narrowly lost.

Trump's campaign is working on a three-day tour of Florida next week, the most aggressive push yet.

Rubio has no plans to join the ride.

Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.