LAS VEGAS -—Sen. Marco Rubio kicked off his first presidential campaign visit to the key early nominating state of Nevada on Thursday with a promise: You're going to be seeing a lot of me.
After touring the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop with Rick Harrison, star of the TV show Pawn Stars, Rubio told reporters he plans to be back "quite often" as he sought to localize his "New American Century" campaign theme.
"Nevada is a state that in many ways embodies some of the challenges we have in the 21st century," said Rubio, R-Fla.
Rubio is in the midst of a two-day swing through a battleground he once called home. Among the four early states, Nevada is perhaps the best test case for Rubio's emerging strategy to present himself as a new kind of Republican.
"Nevada — especially Las Vegas — is much more representative of the rest of the country than Iowa and New Hampshire in many different ways," said longtime Nevada political expert Jon Ralston. "Las Vegas is a melting pot, a strong union town in a right-to-work state. It has a burgeoning Asian and Hispanic population."
Nevada is also the kind of purple state that Republicans desperately want to contest in 2016, but which they have struggled with in recent elections. Many see Rubio as the best hope of turning the tide in that terrain. At the same time, he faces challenges, including his decision to disavow comprehensive immigration reform that he once championed.
Rubio's youth — he turned 44 on Thursday — and his Cuban-American heritage, plus his talent for public speaking, stand out in a mostly older, white Republican Party that has been accused of being tone deaf to centrist and left-leaning voters, of which there are many in the Las Vegas area.
In his remarks at the pawn shop, Rubio emphasized his personal ties to the area, where he lived for a few years as a child and spent a period in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — better known as the Mormon Church — before returning to Catholicism.
"Nevada is going to be an important state for us," Rubio said. "Obviously, Las Vegas is a place where I have some roots and still a lot of family."
Thursday's campaign stop came ahead of a planned evening fundraiser hosted by Harrison. On Friday, Rubio plans to participate in a technology start-up roundtable discussion before heading north to Reno to meet with GOP activists.
After Harrison guided Rubio around the shop, which was filled with antique coins, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley memorabilia, swords and guns, the wealthy businessman summed up why he decided to support the senator.
"This guy honestly cares about people," said Harrison, who donned a blazer over a graphic tee, a casual contrast to Rubio's dark suit and blue tie. "And I think he understands the fact that it's the ease of doing business (that) eliminates poverty — period."
Latinos make up more than a quarter of Nevada's population, according to the census. Immigration is often at the forefront of the political discussion here and Democrats think that will help them in 2016.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the state earlier this month, emphasizing a liberal position on immigration reform by vowing to go further than President Barack Obama in protecting some undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Immigration has been tricky for Rubio and could be especially difficult to navigate in Nevada. He was a co-sponsor of a Senate immigration reform bill that provided a path to citizenship for up to 11 million illegal immigrants, but later backed away from the legislation under sustained fire from conservatives.
Rubio has been adding staff here, enlisting Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchinson to chair his campaign and hiring Republican strategist Mike Slanker to help steer it.
Democrats on Thursday showed how they plan to pounce on Rubio in coming months. The Democratic National Committee keyed its latest attack to his pawnshop visit, arguing that he is "polishing worn-out GOP ideas and selling them back to voters like new." It's part of their larger effort to undercut Rubio's campaign theme by portraying him as being in lock step with long-standing GOP priorities.
Another likely GOP contender, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also visited Nevada earlier this month. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., also could be well-positioned to compete in the state, but he may suffer if Nevada GOP officials opt to hold a primary instead of caucuses, which would probably be dominated by activists friendly to his message.
The candidates also will have to navigate parochial issues such as the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility, which Rubio said he supports but which Bush said he opposes.
Asked if he had any special plans to celebrate his birthday in Las Vegas, Rubio said he was here to work.
"We're going to do what we've been doing and will probably do for the next year, and that's raise money," he said.