MANATEE -- The presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio have turned their attention from primary-packed Super Tuesday to the March 15 Florida primary, which is already turning into another nasty fight.
Rubio has predicted an unequivocal win in his home state, despite recent polls that have Trump beating Rubio by 16 to 20 percentage points. Meanwhile, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has taken a backseat in the state, polling only at 10 percent to Rubio's 25 percent and Trump's 45 percent in the most recent poll.
"It will be embarrassing for Rubio when he loses his home state," said Joe Gruters, the Trump campaign chairman for Florida. "Special interests are spending tens of millions of dollars in negative ads against Donald Trump to get votes for Rubio. We're seeing that already."
Gruters said he "absolutely" expects Trump to win Florida and that Rubio has become a "desperate candidate."
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Rob Hartwell, Manatee County chairman for the Rubio campaign, said polls have been off in other states and he believes Floridians are still leaning for Rubio, though the race will be tight.
"When people realize what
having a president from Florida will do for them, Marco will be the obvious choice," Hartwell said.
"Trump is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that we have to set aside," he added. "Some of his supporters don't seem to listen to reason."
Besides Florida's importance as a swing state and as Rubio's home (as well as a part-time home for Trump), Florida is also pivotal because it has a winner-take-all primary, which means all of Florida's 99 Republican delegates will go to the winner, instead of being divvied up proportionately. Florida and Ohio, which both have primaries March 15, are the first states to have primaries that operate that way. Ohio has 66 Republican delegates.
The 2016 primary has already drawn more mail-in ballots in Manatee County than the total amount sent in the 2012 presidential primary. Republicans have sent in 10,545 so far and Democrats have sent in 6,968, for a total of 17,562 ballots returned so far (Longboat Key has some nonpartisan ballots due to a referendum that allows people to also vote nonpartisan in the primary).
There were 10,688 mail-in ballots returned in the 2012 primary, which was only for Republicans in Florida because Barack Obama had already secured the Democratic nomination at that time.
There have been 40,173 ballots mailed, according to the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections office. Of those, 25,585 are Republican and 14,471 are Democrat. Deputy Supervisor of Elections Sharon Stief said she has mailed out about 700 ballots per day over the past couple of days.
Hartwell said results for Rubio on Super Tuesday were actually better than they had predicted, with Virginia being the most difficult loss. Hartwell said they expected a Virginia win, but Trump earned 34.7 percent of that vote to Rubio's 31.9 percent and therefore 17 delegates, compared to Rubio's 16 delegates. But Hartwell said they didn't expect to win other states such as Arkansas, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia and Tennessee.
"A lot of these states were tailor-made for Ted Cruz with the Bible Belt," Hartwell said.
DJ Hagenwald, a 17-year-old Manatee County co-captain for the Cruz campaign, said while Cruz could struggle in Florida, he thinks it's too early to count the Texas senator out.
"Donald Trump excels with open primaries because he appeals to independent voters," said Hagenwald, who won't be old enough to vote until the general election in November. "Florida's is closed, which is going to give Cruz an advantage."
Both the Trump and Rubio campaigns said Florida is a huge priority for the candidates, and Floridians should expect a lot of visits leading up to March 15. Hagenwald said he hasn't heard much about Cruz visits, but believes there are plans to visit southwest Florida at least once.
Specific schedules for the coming weeks haven't been released yet by any campaigns. Trump has already made public visits to Tampa and Sarasota, while Rubio has made one to Manatee. No campaign could say for sure if there would be more visits to the Manatee-Sarasota area.
"We're looking at the Tampa area and doing something with our veterans," Hartwell said, adding that the area of Manatee, Sarasota, Pinellas and Hillsborough is a priority, as well as Rubio's home in Miami.
Gruters said he doesn't believe Rubio's efforts will make a difference to Trump's widespread support in Florida, and that Rubio should drop out if he loses.
"If you can't win your home state, you can't go on," Gruters said. "What's your path to the nomination?"
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby