Marco Rubio stumps across Tampa Bay, while Nikki Haley touts her support

Marco Rubio held a rally for Pinellas County voters outside Beckwith Electric in Largo on Saturday March 12, 2016. 

(MONICA HERNDON   |   Times)
Marco Rubio held a rally for Pinellas County voters outside Beckwith Electric in Largo on Saturday March 12, 2016. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published March 13, 2016

LARGO — Sen. Marco Rubio, visibly shaken by what he called "frightening, grotesque and disturbing" images before a canceled Donald Trump rally Friday in Chicago, on Saturday in Tampa Bay wavered on his promise to support Trump if he wins the nomination.

"I don't know," Rubio told reporters when asked if he stood by his pledge.

"I already talked about the fact that I think Hillary Clinton would be terrible for this country, but the fact that you're even asking me that question … I still, at this moment, intend to support the Republican nominee," he said, and then appeared to choke up. "But it's getting harder every day."

Rubio, 44, spoke to roughly 250 people at Beckwith Electric, lamenting that the tone of today's politics has sunk to the level of "Twitter trolls" and blog commenters. The media, which rewards sensational attack politics with more coverage deserves blame, he said, as do the protesters and "professional agitators" who disrupt political rallies and stifle speech, as they did in Chicago.

But Trump also has to take responsibility, Rubio said.

"We have a major presidential candidate that basically encourages people in the crowd to beat up on people that heckle and protest against him. That's what's happening, and don't tell me that it's not because it is. … The other day a guy sucker-punched somebody at one of his events," said Rubio, suggesting that if Trump is the nominee, he will define the Republican Party and conservatism for a generation of young Americans.

"This is what it's going to mean to people to be a conservative. Let me tell you who a real conservative was. Ronald Reagan was a real conservative. Is there anything about Donald Trump that reminds you of Ronald Reagan?"

Rubio also made quick stops Saturday in Pasco, Hillsborough and Polk counties.

Later Saturday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley stumped for Rubio at the Pinellas County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day Dinner, saying that before she endorsed the senator, she turned inward to determine what she wanted in a president.

"I wanted a country with a leader who knew the value of a dollar," she said. "I wanted a leader who knows the private sector wins every time and the government needs to stay out of the way. I wanted a leader who knew the Constitution wins."

"I also knew that I wanted someone with a passion who was going to fight like every day was his last," the governor said to cheers from about 400 in attendance at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park.

Haley knocked Republican front-runner Trump, contrasting his behavior at his rallies to that of South Carolinians after two tragic events last year: the fatal shooting of Walter Scott in the back by a North Charleston police officer, and the massacre of nine African-Americans inside a Charleston church.

"I know what hate can do. I know what division can do. But I know what Americans can do. I saw in South Carolina. We didn't have riots, we had vigils," she said. "I'm watching a presidential candidate who is saying at his rallies, 'Punch him, he should be taken out on a stretcher.' That's not Republican, that's not American."

She warned that if Rubio loses Florida, Trump will win the nomination. And, she said, "If Trump wins, Hillary wins."

In another boost for Rubio on Saturday, he won the GOP caucuses in Washington, D.C.

In Largo, Rubio was at his best — passionate and funny — even though most signs point to his campaign being headed toward a final defeat in Tuesday's Florida primary. Vendors selling Rubio campaign buttons Saturday had slashed their prices from three for $10 to 10 for $10 to get rid of inventory before his expected withdrawal. More than half a dozen polls released in the past week show Rubio trailing Trump among Florida Republicans by as little as 6 percentage points to as much as 23, with the average compiled by showing Rubio trailing by nearly 15 percentage points.

"It always comes down to Florida, and I want you to know for me it was always going to come down to Florida anyway," he told the supporters in Largo, noting that Florida has a winner-take-all primary. "If I win Florida by one vote I get all 99 delegates, and if I don't, I get none. That's how high the stakes are."

Mostly, though, Rubio stressed the danger of Trump becoming the GOP standard bearer.

"The job of a true leader is not to stoke people's anger. The job of a true leader is not to … make people more angry so they vote for me instead of someone else. Because when you do that there are consequences. There are consequences to that and they are playing out before our very eyes," he said. "I can't tell you how sad I was to see images from Chicago last night. The world turned on their televisions and saw images that made America look like the Third World."

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.