Sen. Marco Rubio urged Kansas voters to breathe new life into his candidacy Friday night, just a few hours before the Republican Party was set to begin its suddenly significant presidential preference caucuses.
“You’re being asked to decide the identity of America,” the Florida Republican told an enthusiastic crowd in an Overland Park hotel ballroom. “If we nominate someone like Donald Trump, we will lose. … There is no doubt about it.
“If you nominate me, we will win,” he said. “We will unite this party.”
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Rubio’s Kansas City area rally marked the end of a barnstorming day in the state, a tour that first took him to Topeka and Wichita. It came as a new poll showed him in third place in the state, firmly behind Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and front-runner Trump, but within striking distance of at least some delegates.
Rubio repeatedly took aim at Trump in Overland Park, by implication if not always by name.
“Our nominee must be a real and true conservative,” he said, his voice scratchy from a slight cold and a long day of speaking. “Conservatism is not about insults.”
Rubio also noted his humble roots — Mom cleaned hotel rooms, Dad poured drinks — and said, “I did not find my success because I inherited a million dollars.”
He joked that Trump thinks the nation’s nuclear weapons triad “is a rock band from the ’80s.”
The Floridian wasn’t the only GOP candidate with his eyes on Kansas on Friday.
Trump abruptly canceled a Saturday speech at a popular conservative conference in Washington, D.C., and said he would instead speak to voters in Wichita before the caucuses. Cruz, fresh from a Wednesday visit to Kansas, announced his own rally Saturday in Wichita in the same location as Trump’s — but an hour later.
The announcements suggest the value of the Kansas caucuses has risen dramatically in the past week.
Forty GOP convention delegates are at stake Saturday, awarded proportionally. In the context of the 1,237 votes needed to win the Republican nomination, the potential delegate haul is small enough to relegate Kansas to second-tier campaign status in most years.
But the fierce battle among the remaining Republican candidates has changed the calculus. The Kansas caucus returns, combined with similar Saturday caucuses in Maine and Kentucky and a primary in Louisiana, not only will bring delegates, but also could stall Trump’s Super Tuesday momentum.
That’s because the winner of the caucuses will show up on Sunday front pages and morning newscasts. Kansas campaign stops by Cruz and Rubio — and Trump’s last-minute decision to campaign in the state —suggest all three campaigns now see value in those headlines, just days before a primary in delegate-rich Michigan.
Rubio sought conservative votes in his speeches in Kansas.
“The conservative moment is not about anger,” he said. “The conservative movement is not about fear.”
Supporters said they were impressed, but they disagreed about Rubio’s chances.
“He’s the kind of candidate I want as president,” said Dave Arlen of Overland Park. “I just don’t know if he can win.”
Susan Canton of Roeland Park saw Rubio as “our best chance to beat Hillary (Clinton).”
Campaign officials said about 2,500 people signed up for the Overland Park event.
Rubio was joined by Gov. Sam Brownback, who heard scattered boos — and cheers.
“Marco Rubio is going to win Kansas,” Brownback declared.
Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a one-time presidential candidate and winner of the 2012 caucuses in Kansas, spoke on Rubio’s behalf, as did Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico.
While Rubio criticized Trump, he directed several barbs at President Barack Obama.
“We have a commander in chief who is gutting the military,” Rubio said. “When I’m elected, we are going to undertake a Reagan-style rebuilding of the United States military.”
He pledged to wage a “real war on terror” and keep the American detention center in Guantanamo open.
“(Terrorists are) not going to Kansas,” he said.
Fort Leavenworth has been under consideration as a destination for those now held in Guantanamo.
Before the speech, Mike Silvey, a sales representative from Lenexa, called Rubio an articulate, conservative candidate.
“I like the way he would stand up to terrorists and I think he’s got the kind of personality that could actually get better tax reform,” the 39-year-old said. “And he seems like the first one who’s been able to fight back strongly against Trump.”
But it isn’t clear whether Rubio, or the other candidates, have enough time to overtake Trump’s popularity in the Kansas race.
A poll Friday by a Republican-leaning consulting firm called the Trafalgar Group showed the businessman with 35 percent of likely Kansas GOP caucusgoers, 6 points better than Cruz and 18 points ahead of Rubio. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio had 13 percent support, a good showing for a candidate who has not campaigned in Kansas.
Retired physician Ben Carson announced Friday that he was leaving the race. He was not a part of the poll.
Ryan Kubert is planning to attend a GOP caucus, which starts at 10 a.m. Saturday. He’s still undecided and attended Rubio’s rally in Overland Park hoping to hear something that would help him decide.
“I’m seeing if he can swing my vote,” said the 23-year-old civil engineer from Overland Park.
But Kubert said he was disappointed in Thursday night’s Fox News Republican debate and Rubio’s willingness to trade insults with Trump.
“Count me in the camp that’s not for Trump,” Kubert said.
Karen Johnson, an accountant from Overland Park, shared his view.
“It was such a food fight,” she said. “It wasn’t necessary.”
While Republicans were busy pondering their caucus choices, Kansas Democrats were also preparing to make their presidential preferences known.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Clinton, a former secretary of state, are vying for the state’s 33 available Democratic delegates. They’ll be awarded proportionally after the caucuses are over. Registration begins at 1 p.m., with the caucuses beginning at 3 p.m.
Sanders campaigned Thursday in Lawrence and visited Kansas City last week. Clinton is heavily organized in Kansas but did not campaign here before the caucuses.