Rubio courts Fla. conservatives

ORLANDO — If Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio plans a political shift to the middle now that he doesn’t have a prominent primary opponent, he’s not doing it soon.

Rubio spent Saturday meeting with Republican activists, going to a gun show attended by other statewide Republican candidates and planned later to address the socially conservative group that pushed for Florida’s constitutional ban on gay marriage. He also defended his support of a controversial new Arizona immigration law.

And through it all, he maintained his campaign was mainstream. The candidate who used the energy of tea partiers to rise from nowhere and chase Gov. Charlie Crist out of the GOP primary with a conservative message says he’ll continue talking about he same things now that he is a lock for the nomination. The primary is in August.

“The things I believe in I think our mainstream thoughts in America. I believe that our tax code is too complicated and too burdensome, I think America is spending money it doesn’t have and it’s going to bankrupt us, I think the world is a safer place when America is the strongest country in the world,” Rubio said. “Sixty to 70 percent of Americans agree with my position on those issues.”

Walking around the gun show he was well received, with many vendors and attendees congratulated him on overcoming the huge advantage Crist had in the polls and in fundraising at the beginning of the race. Crist, who changed his voter registration from Republican to no party affiliation last week, announced last month he would run without party backing.

“Crist is an idiot,” one gun shopper told Rubio. Gun vendor Khaled Akkawi offered to host a fundraiser for Rubio, who has a concealed weapons permit but hasn’t owned a gun in four years.

The gun show offered several candidates a chance to win over Republican voters. At least six Republican statewide candidates including governor hopefuls Bill McCollum and Rick Scott attended the event, compared to no Democratic statewide candidates — Rubio shrugged off the idea that he is forging a conservative path.

“This is a cross section of the people of Florida — all ethnicities, all party registrations are here. People from all walks of life are here,” Rubio said while walking by tables with Uzis, pistols and rifles. “The second amendment is a constitutional right. I didn’t make it up, the Republican Party didn’t make it up. It’s in the Constitution. I think it’s just as important as any of the other rights in our constitution.”

Asked about his position on the Arizona law, which requires state and local law officers to question people about their immigration status if there’s reason to suspect they’re in the country illegally, Rubio said “I’m focused on the law and order part of it.”

“America has immigration laws, immigration laws need to be followed,” he said. “I’m as pro-immigration as anybody else is, I believe that immigration is good for America, but it has to be done through a process that’s orderly, organized and legal.”

As for speaking at the Florida Family Policy Council, the group that got the gay marriage ban passed, Rubio said he is willing to take his message to whomever wants to hear it.

“My message is not going to change. I stand for what I stand for. My message is the same one it was four years ago, it will be the same one today,” he said.