WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — The rain began and the rooftop bar, jammed with 400 people who just heard from Sen. Marco Rubio, cleared out. Scott Maanum hoped to meet him, but others surrounded Rubio for selfie after selfie and then the Republican presidential contender was gone, too.
"He was very inspiring," said Maanum, a 35-year-old physician. "He drives the point home about making a better future and that really connects with me."
Four months after launching his campaign in Miami, declaring "yesterday is over" in an unambiguous shot at Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, Rubio has made the generational argument his focus, and he used it repeatedly during a whirlwind trip to Iowa.
It's a way to project optimism that has been a winning formula for past presidents and to confront the challenge posed by his inexperience as a first-term senator who draws comparisons to Barack Obama.
"We inherited from our grandparents and parents the greatest nation in the history of the world, so now it's our turn," Rubio, 44, told the bar crowd Tuesday evening. "I know some people go around talking about making America great again," he said, referring to Donald Trump. "America is great."
But while Rubio left audiences impressed, he is mired in the middle of a sprawling pack of Republicans — many of whom are trying to capitalize on public disgust with Washington and are warning voters about taking a leap on another inspirational speaker.
Rubio and his advisers insist they are in the place they want, using a slow and steady playbook and avoiding the media glare that top candidates face.
They dismiss early polls as meaningless, reminding reporters that at this time in the last cycle, Rick Perry was the candidate to beat, and before that, some guy named Fred Thompson was supposed to cruise to the nomination.