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  1. Florida Politics

Marco Rubio's challenge: Support Donald Trump now without hurting his own reelection chances — or his political future

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, left, and businessman Donald Trump argue while answering a question during a Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Houston on Feb. 25. [Pool photo by Gary Coronado | Houston Chronicle via AP]
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, left, and businessman Donald Trump argue while answering a question during a Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Houston on Feb. 25. [Pool photo by Gary Coronado | Houston Chronicle via AP]
Published Aug. 19, 2016

Dangerous. Wholly unprepared. Lunatic.

Con artist.

Those are direct words from Marco Rubio about Donald Trump, and as Rubio said in a widely noted interview Monday, he stands by everything. But the Florida Republican also stands by Trump, whom he once vowed to oppose at all cost.

"I don't care if I have to get in my pickup truck and drive around the country like I did when I ran for the Senate," Rubio said in February as his presidential bid unraveled in a fit of name calling. "Donald Trump will never be the nominee of the party of Lincoln and Reagan."

GREATEST HITS: Marco Rubio's 10 greatest slams against Donald Trump

These are uncharted times for Republicans and Rubio's attempt to balance antipathy for his former rival with loyalty to the party is perhaps the country's most stunning illustration of the problems (and opportunities) Trump is creating.

Rubio says he supports Trump, but that's about all before noting he disagrees with him on many things and is running for Senate again to provide a check on whomever occupies the White House in January.

"It's transparently hypocritical," said veteran Florida Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich, who is in the "Never Trump" camp. "My assumption is that in the absence of principles or courage, he's trying to have it both ways, to not hang Trump around his neck like an anchor and not open himself up to accusations of disloyalty in 2020 or beyond."

Rubio, 45, does want to run for president again, and a Senate platform would maintain a high profile especially if Hillary Clinton prevails. He insists, however, that is not driving his decision to seek re-election and that it would be safer to stay out of politics for a while.

A poll released last week showed 53 percent of Florida voters think Rubio is running more to set himself up for the future versus 25 percent who said it is more about public service. Sixty-three percent of voters said they did not know Rubio has endorsed Trump, and 25 percent said it made them less likely to vote for him versus 9 percent who said it would make them vote for him.

Regardless of motive, to stay in the Senate, Rubio needs the significant support Trump has drawn in Florida. He also needs to keep a distance from the controversies that have helped Clinton pull ahead of her Republican opponent.

Rubio joined critics when Trump went after the Muslim parents of an Army captain who died heroically in Iraq. He countered Trump's bluster that President Barack Obama "founded" ISIS. He skipped the GOP convention in Cleveland but appeared in a short video. He hasn't found time to campaign with Trump in Florida but could soon travel with Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

The dance is working as Rubio cruises toward an Aug. 30 primary victory against developer Carlos Beruff and currently beats the presumed Democratic nominee in a hypothetical matchup. He is bracing nonetheless for a tight race that may hinge on how successfully he manages Trump.

"He's the nominee of our party chosen by voters in a primary election," Rubio told the Tampa Bay Times during a stop in Daytona Beach earlier this month. "This election is a binary choice. People can pretend it's something else, but it's a choice between two names on the ballot. I disagree with Donald on many issues; I disagree with Hillary on virtually every issue."

Several other vulnerable Senate Republicans are also running ahead of Trump, engaging in the same awkward finessing. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire has struggled to explain the difference between saying she will vote for Trump but not endorsing him.

"Most voters vote for the same party for president as they vote for Senate and Congress and other offices. I wouldn't have expected there to be much daylight between the presidential ticket and what's happening in Senate races," said Barry Burden, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "But it looks like at least some of these senators, Rubio in particular, have been able to differentiate themselves from Trump by some degree."

Partisanship tends to get stronger toward Election Day, Burden added.

"You might expect Republicans to close ranks and those supporting Trump at the top of the ticket would also be voting for Rubio. And if Trump's in trouble, then Rubio's in trouble. On the other hand, individual candidates become better known to voters as you get close to Election Day.

"So Rubio might be able to continue differentiating himself and pull across some Clinton voters or people who aren't voting at the presidential level. He needs some unusual things to happen this year for him to be successful."

• • •

"Do you still think he's a con man?"

Rubio got that question Monday during a sit-down with the Miami Herald editorial board.

"I've stood by everything I ever said in my campaign, and that said, we're in a different place now," he replied, repeating the line about a binary choice.

The comment made national news that recalled how adamant Rubio had been against Trump in the primary. It set off a polarizing debate on social media, Rubio alternately seen as an opportunistic sell-out and someone who puts party ahead of personal feelings. The GOP has a tenuous grip on control of the Senate, and Rubio represents the best chance of keeping the Florida seat.

He began the presidential race last year by trying to avoid Trump, not even mentioning him on the stump. But as the field narrowed and Rubio climbed, Trump attacked him for skipping Senate work and not having experience outside politics. Trump branded him "Little Marco."

Rubio fought back, saying Trump was no conservative and was too "erratic" to be trusted with the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Then he went vulgar, giving the nation the spectacle of Trump on a debate stage defending the size of his genitals. Rubio's campaign website sold Never Trump gear, joining a movement among Republicans who said the New Yorker was destroying the party.

But Trump kept rolling and crushed Rubio in Florida's March 15 primary, winning all but Rubio's home county of Miami-Dade. That night, before a thin, tearful crowd at Florida International University, Rubio gave another warning.

"Forget about the election for a moment, there's a broader issue in our political culture in this country," he said. "And this is what happens when a leading presidential candidate goes around feeding into a narrative of anger and bitterness and frustration."

Over and over, Rubio promised audiences across the country he would not run for re-election in November if his presidential campaign failed. Yet weeks after, signs emerged that he was changing his mind, including dropping harder-edge criticism of Trump and making numerous trips around Florida.

He entered the Senate race on June 22, explaining he had gone back on his unequivocal vow not to run because too many important things were at stake, including future Supreme Court justices and the Iran nuclear deal. "No matter who's elected president, there's reason to worry," Rubio said.

Rubio couches his support for Trump in terms of party loyalty. All the presidential candidates signed a pledge to support the nominee.

"I think he wants to be his own man but he is honoring his pledge," said Bill Paterson, a local GOP chairman in Florida. "I don't want to see Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz in St. Lucie County again," referring to two presidential primary candidates who refuse to back the nominee.

If Rubio were included in that sentiment, his path to victory would be difficult, especially given hard feelings among many conservatives over his role in helping write the Senate's immigration overhaul that included a path to citizenship.

Rubio needs the base fueling Trump but not at the expense of alienating voters turned off by Trump.

"I don't think Rubio would win if Trump isn't on the ballot," said Joe Gruters, the GOP chairman in Sarasota County who works for the Trump campaign. "Trump has brought so many voters into the system. He appeals to blue collar Democrats who are disenfranchised. I think he'll have coattails that will benefit Rubio greatly."

On the other hand, Gruters said, Rubio can help Trump in Miami-Dade, home to a sizable Hispanic population, and other pockets of the state. Trump knows the value Rubio can provide, giving him a shout-out during a recent rally in Daytona Beach. But it's an open question whether they will be seen together.

"I have my own campaign to run," Rubio told the Times. "So we're going to set our campaign schedule, we're going to follow it. If there's an opportunity and it makes sense, we'll explore it. Obviously that hasn't presented itself yet."

He may appear with Pence, who has been trying to bridge a divide between Republicans and Trump. A visit by Pence to Bush's office in Coral Gables was cordial but Bush has no plans to support Trump.

The real test for Rubio will begin after the Aug. 30 primary.

His likely rival, Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, plans to turn the race into a referendum on Trump and last week launched an online ad playing off Rubio's remarks to the Herald with the tag line, "Marco Rubio, not strong enough to stand up to Trump."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

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