MANATEE --Florida Sen. Marco Rubio drew a crowd of about 1,000 people to a Manatee campaign rally Tuesday, where he focused on portraying himself as a candidate with concrete ideas on how to lead the country while hurling thinly veiled insults at Donald Trump, who is leading in Florida polls.
The political world has increasingly chattered about Rubio dropping out as he's fallen behind in delegates to Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The most recent Florida poll conducted by Monmouth University has Trump leading Rubio in his home state 38 percent to 30 percent.
"It always comes down to Florida," Rubio told a cheering crowd. "And it will again."
Most of Rubio's 30-minute speech focused on the military while directly bashing President Barack Obama and indi
rectly bashing Trump. He left most of the direct insults against Trump to active and retired military members who spoke before him, but said conservatism was about a set of principles and ideas on how to deal with the problems facing the nation, rather than fear mongering and anger.
"Unlike other people running, I have real ideas about how to deal with this," Rubio said, adding later, "Our next commander-in-chief cannot be someone who thinks the nuclear triad is a rock band."
Rubio said Obama was leading a "fake war on terror" by not being tough enough on the terrorist group known as ISIS, compromising with Iran, downsizing the military and trying to close the military prison in Guantanamo Bay.
He also hurled criticism at Veterans Affairs, saying calls to the VA suicide hotline were going to voicemail but no one was being held accountable by Obama.
"A young man, a veteran, had committed suicide. He laid down in front of a train track and was killed," Rubio said. "He was one of the people who had left a voicemail. They called him back the day after he killed himself. No one was held accountable."
A long line of supporters waited to be admitted into the event, some with Marco Rubio stickers on their chests. Among them was Bradenton resident Pat Merchant, who said she approves of the policies Rubio has set forth.
"We think he's young and energized and really do feel like he would be a good start of a great new chapter in our community," the 72-year-old said.
Most said, though they supported Rubio over Trump, they would vote for Trump if he were the nominee over any Democratic candidate. Some young people, however, said they would never support Trump.
"I'm one of those never Trump guys," said 18-year-old Hayden Grim of Bradenton. "It's sad to see the guys like Rubio, who has what it takes, fall to someone who really doesn't, and has kind of a faulty basis on some of those things. And truly is not really a conservative."
Merchant said she feels like Rubio can bounce back from trailing in the polls.
"I think we're narrowing the gap and I really do hope that he takes his home state," she said.
Rubio appeared confident in front of the excited crowd, seemingly unperturbed by polls that have him at least eight percentage points behind Trump. He only brought up his polls at the end of his speech, bringing up his Senate run against former Gov. Charlie Crist, who lost to Rubio. Rubio said the GOP told him to wait his turn and support Crist, and even though polls had him way down, he pressed on.
"Most of the people who believed I would win lived in my home, and four of them were under the age of 10," Rubio said, to laughs. "Well, history repeats itself."
Rubio compared Crist's switch from Republican to Independent and finally to Democrat to the inconsistencies of Trump.
Joe Gruters, the Florida Trump campaign chairman, criticized the low attendance at Rubio's rally compared with Trump's 12,000 people at a Sarasota rally in November.
Rubio remains undaunted.
"Once again, I face an opponent that's ahead in the polls, according to the polls, who is not who he says he is, who will not do what he says he's going to do, who in fact is not a Republican and has never voted in a Republican primary, and who, by the way, was one of the largest campaign contributors and supporters of Mr. Charlie Crist when I ran against him," Rubio said.
"And just as we did then, we will do it again now. We are going to win this election."
-- Herald island/law enforcement reporter Amaris Castillo contributed to this report.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby