SARASOTA — Marco Rubio on Monday promised that as president he would call a constitutional convention of all the states in order to pass a balanced budget amendment and impose term limits on members of Congress.
"It will be limited," Rubio assured about 400 people gathered inside a boat manufacturing warehouse in Sarasota. "They won't be able to touch the First Amendment, they won't be able to touch the Second Amendment. They won't be able to touch our important constitutional rights. But here's what we must do — we must pass amendments limiting the size and scope of the federal government."
The proposal, which Rubio only recently started touting, drew applause from the crowd in Sarasota, along with his standard stump speech about preserving the American Dream from damage by President Barack Obama and big-spending Republicans in Washington.
The idea of holding the first constitutional convention since 1787 has bubbled up in recent years among some tea party and conservative groups, and last week Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, called for one. But Rubio is the only leading presidential candidate advocating for such a gathering, which some critics fear could open the door to more sweeping changes to the Constitution.
"As president, I can promote such a convention, but I cannot make it happen without the American people. That's why I'm asking for your help today," he told the Sarasota crowd, crediting the Founding Fathers for this new plank in his presidential platform. "To any American worried about the debt we're leaving our children: Join me in this effort. Press your state representatives to convene a convention of states."
Already facing criticism for missing Senate votes while campaigning for president, Rubio's Florida swing nearly caused him to miss a closed-door, classified Foreign Relations hearing on North Korea's weapons test. But after the Tampa Bay Times and other news outlets reported Rubio's plans to miss the Monday evening hearing, he rushed back to Washington, missing a scheduled Key Largo fundraising reception.
Rubio appeared to allude to the conflict between his Senate duties and campaign schedule, repeating his assertion that his campaign for president is more important than much of his Senate work.
"A senator can help shape the agenda, but only a president can change the agenda," said Rubio, 44.
In Sarasota on Monday, and in a Miami event Sunday night, Rubio spoke of the American Dream threatened by Obama's big-government agenda.
"This is hard, but it's the truth: America is a great nation in decline," he warned a couple of hundred supporters at downtown Miami's Intercontinental Hotel. "We're a great nation in decline. Every year for the last seven years, America's gotten worse, and weaker, and less prosperous."
"Here's the good news," he added, in Sarasota. "We're not a weak country. We're not a weak people. We just have a weak president, and this year we're going to change that."
Rubio also took shots at several of his presidential primary rivals, though he never mentioned anybody by name.
He criticized supporters of flat-tax proposals (Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul), which Rubio called a "sneaky" value-added tax that would hurt the economy.
"It intentionally tricks people into believing their taxes are being lowered when in fact they're simply being shifted," Rubio said.
"Republican candidates today try to hide their support for the value-added tax by renaming it a 'Business Flat Tax,' " he said, referring to what Cruz called his plan. "But don't be fooled. If it acts like a VAT, taxes like a VAT, and grows government like a VAT — it's a VAT."
He also scoffed at unnamed Republicans who support an Internet sales tax (Jeb Bush and Chris Christie have either been receptive or supportive): "It is unacceptable for anyone that claims to be conservative to join this liberal cause for Internet taxes."
Iowa kicks off the primary voting with its caucuses Feb. 1, and polls there show Rubio in third place, well behind Donald Trump and Cruz. In New Hampshire, which votes Feb. 9, the average of recent polls shows Rubio in second place behind Trump.
As always, Rubio cast himself as the candidate of a new generation and the strongest Republican to take on Hillary Clinton in the general election.
"Every day her campaign now attacks me. … Attack, attack, attack. I love it, because now I know that they don't want to run against me. I knew that already — she doesn't want to run against me — but let me tell you guys something: Please, I cannot wait to run against her!"
Times/Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Alex Leary contributed to this report.