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  1. Florida Politics

Donald Trump, Marco Rubio storm Florida in final push before primary

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump raises his arms during a campaign rally in Boca Raton on Sunday. [Associated Press]
Published Mar. 14, 2016

BOCA RATON — It was supposed to be a rally for Donald Trump, but it sounded often like a bashing session of Marco Rubio on Sunday night, as Trump sought to put away his Florida rival heading into Tuesday's GOP primary.

The assault began two hours before Trump took the stage, with speakers railing against Rubio's role in helping author the Senate's 2013 comprehensive immigration bill. One woman said her son had been murdered by an illegal immigrant and attached blame to Rubio, who spent Sunday campaigning feverishly across Florida.

The mere mention of Rubio's name brought a chorus of boos from the crowd, a mix of young and old and overall laid-back as a gorgeous sunset washed over an amphitheater as Elton John's Tiny Dancer played on speakers.

"Build that wall. Build that wall," the crowd chanted.

Trump arrived about 8 p.m., more than an hour late, but in typical fashion, flying over the crowd in his helicopter. He wasted no time going after Rubio. "Marco doesn't vote," he said, referring to the senator's absenteeism in Washington. He mocked him as "little Marco," pronouncing it "liddle."

But Trump also warned against complacency. "Let's not say that we have a 21-point lead," Trump said referring to polling in Florida. "Because I want you to vote. Let's assume we're even."

Trump will campaign this afternoon in Tampa with a town hall at the Tampa Convention Center. He canceled an evening event in Doral to campaign instead in Ohio, a sign of where he feels the race is.

There were a few demonstrators in Boca Raton, but nothing like the scene in Chicago on Friday, when Trump canceled a rally. Trump boasted Sunday that he was credited for "a wise decision."

Rubio, struggling to head off the end of his campaign, continued his torrid pace and cast himself as an underdog.

"You believed in me and you gave me a chance," Rubio said in the Villages, the sprawling and heavily GOP retirement community in Central Florida, invoking his 2010 Senate campaign.

Later, in Orlando, Rubio used a megaphone — symbolism for his struggle to be heard — to say voters can't allow the conservative movement to "be hijacked" by Trump.

Rubio does not have the luxury of time as he did six years ago, slowly rising in his epic showdown with Charlie Crist. A poll conducted by Florida Atlantic University and released Saturday showed Trump leading Rubio and Ted Cruz by 23 points. Trump got 44 percent of the vote, with Rubio and Cruz each taking 21 percent. John Kasich had 9 percent.

Other polls have shown a smaller Trump lead, and Rubio is holding out hope for a surprise driven by a big turnout.

For Democrats, Hillary Clinton had a huge lead over Bernie Sanders, 59 to 31 percent, in the FAU poll, which tracked other surveys. Neither Clinton nor Sanders campaigned in Florida over the weekend.

That Cruz is so competitive with Rubio speaks loudly of Rubio's fortunes in his home state. In recent days, Rubio raced all over trying to rally voters on his side and arguing that a vote for Cruz or Kasich is a vote for Trump.

The day was steeped in growing focus on violence at Trump's events and all the presidential candidates, Democrats included, blasted him as partially responsible.

Rubio in the Villages said that some protesters are "professionals" but that the scenes resemble a "Third World country."

He was stronger on CNN, saying Trump "has turned the most important election in a generation into a circus, into a complete fiasco and a carnival, and this country deserves better. At some point, people have to wake up here. This is really going to do damage to America."

At the Villages, Rubio's speech was interrupted at the top by a man who shouted "Marco Rubio is trying to steal my girlfriend." Rubio laughed it off as the man was peacefully removed. "I'm still looking for the hidden camera," Rubio said.

Sarah Palin, campaigning for Trump in Plant City on Sunday, defended the candidate. "Trump's reminding people we don't have to put up with that because they're disrupting not just his message but the people's right to be there to hear what he has to say," she said. "He's always telling the crowd, 'Be cordial, be polite,' and of course the press will pick up the one or two times he's said, 'If that guy does that again … ' "

Rubio made a pitch for changing the retirement age for Social Security and vowed to bring about a "Reagan-style" expansion of military funding, drawing applause. "I don't want war," he said, adding however, "if you don't defeat the enemies of peace, you're going to have war."

But the energy was with Trump in Boca Raton as a couple of thousand people flocked to see him. Some tailgated and vendors hawked Trump T-shirts, buttons and his signature "Make America Great Again" hats.

Trump gave a winding speech, touching on immigration, his poll numbers and blasting bad trade deals being worked in Washington. "Who is going to vote on Tuesday?" he asked. "You promise, right?" The crowd roared with approval.

"He's shaking things up," said Joe Misek, 34, of Deerfield Beach, who walked up to the event with a Bud Light in hand. "You have to change the establishment if you want something to happen."

"He tells it like it is," said Gail Fleming, 62, of North Palm Beach. Like many in the audience, she voted for Rubio for Senate in 2010. "He's failed Florida. He did a 360-degree turn on the things he said he was going to do," like oppose "amnesty."

She added: "I feel burned."

Rubio continues his dash today with a trip down Interstate 95, starting with Jacksonville and stopping in Melbourne and West Palm Beach before finishing in West Miami, his hometown.

Clinton said Sunday she will hold an event in South Florida on primary night.

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

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