U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio connected his working-class upbringing as the son of Cuban immigrants to core Republican values as he brought his presidential campaign to Raleigh on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.
It played well among the several hundred people who turned out to hear him at the State Fairgrounds. Rubio spoke for about 45 minutes on a theater-in-the-round stage in the Gov. James Holshouser Building.
Dressed in a dark suit and indigo tie, Rubio drew big cheers when he said he would get rid of the Common Core education standards, impose term limits for judges and lawmakers and shut down President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Rubio said he is running for president to right a country that has been on the wrong course since Obama took office in 2009.
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“If we get this election wrong, we may not be able to turn the country around,” Rubio said.
Rubio, 44, was Florida House speaker before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 2010 with substantial support from tea party Republicans. He says that election demonstrated his outsider credentials in a GOP presidential campaign that has been dominated by billionaire businessman Donald Trump, who has never served in office.
Trump’s campaign has been full of fiery rhetoric. Although Rubio didn’t mention Trump or the other candidates, he said he’s also angry at where he sees America heading. But he told the crowd he can change it.
“It’s not enough to be angry,” he said. “You’ve got to know what to do about it.”
Rubio nearly filled the Holshouser building, which can hold roughly 900 people, but that is a much smaller number than the 8,000 who turned out for Trump when he spoke at Dorton Arena on the fairgrounds last month.
Rubio’s audience was largely white but had a noticeable presence of younger voters.
Hunter Mundy, 18, a high-school senior from Creedmoor, was one of them. She had brought her father, Frank, 44, to see Rubio.
“He has a different eye than the others have,” she said. “He was raised differently and he worked for things. That’s what I liked about him.”
Her father said he felt more comfortable with Rubio than with some of the other candidates, whom he described as more extreme.
“While he’s coming from the right side of the equation, he shows a more palatable feel to me in the way he approaches the issues,” Frank Mundy said.
Rubio did not stray far from the standard Republican script as he sought to distance himself from Trump and the other candidates.
In 2013, Rubio joined seven other senators in a bipartisan effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. It would have created a path for more than 10 million undocumented immigrants to gain U.S. citizenship and spent $7 billion on border-securing measures. Other Republican senators opposed the legislation, and it did not move.
Rubio did not mention his role in the legislation Saturday but gave it a passing reference by saying the immigration landscape is much different in the wake of the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.
“It’s not the same issue it was two or three years ago,” he said.
Rachel and Emily Stuckey, sisters who are college students at N.C. State University and Campbell University respectively, said Rubio’s political experience was a plus, and they found him less strident than other candidates. They said they liked his positions but weren’t committing yet.
“I really do like Rubio a lot, but I want to hear the final arguments,” Rachel Stuckey said.
North Carolina support
Rubio has drawn substantial support from state GOP leaders. Last month, businessman Art Pope, a major financial backer of Republican causes and candidates over the years, announced he was backing Rubio.
A dozen Republican state lawmakers have signed on, including House Majority Leader Mike Hager and Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam.
On Friday, Rubio’s campaign announced endorsements from three former N.C. GOP chairmen: former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer, former Congressman Robin Hayes and Ferrell Blount. Fetzer was on hand Saturday to introduce Rubio.
State lawmakers moved North Carolina’s presidential primary up to March 15, making it likely several candidates will still have active campaigns this time around.