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In Tampa, Marco Rubio says conservatism is at stake in Florida Primary

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Towards the conclusion of his half-hour speech to a crowd of several hundred people at the Tampa Convention Center on Monday afternoon, Marco Rubio told the crowd that they had a very important decision to make next week when they go to the polls.

“You’re not just being asked to choose between the presidential candidates, you’re being asked to choose the very identify of America, and quite frankly, the very identity of the Republican party and the conservative movement,” he said solemnly, before the crowd began cheering.

For Rubio, Florida is everything in his increasingly remote chances of becoming the Republican presidential nominee in 2016. With just two victories (including one on Sunday in Puerto Rico), the clock – and delegate math – is working against him.

Last week, the GOP establishment, personified by Mitt Romney, finally seemed to realize that Donald Trump was about to glide his way to the nomination, and fought back. “Donald suffered some real damage over the last week, ” Rubio told reporters before he spoke to the audience. “People are starting to learn that Donald Trump the character, and Donald Trump the person are not the same thing, and what you get as a president is not the character you see on television, it’s the person, as more and more people are learning about him, you start running into some real resistance.”

The problem with Rubio is that the resistance is coming from Ted Cruz, not himself.

In the overall race for delegates, Trump has 378 and Cruz has 295. Rubio has 123 delegates and Ohio Governor Kasich has 34. It takes 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination for president.

“A vote for John Kasich or a vote for Ted Cruz in Florida is a vote for Donald Trump,” Rubio said. “I’m the only one who has any chance of beating Donald Trump in Florida. So if you don’t want Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee, you have to vote for Marco Rubio,” referring to himself in the third person.

Recent polls show that Rubio is beginning to close what had been a huge deficit to Trump in his home state. A Monmouth University survey released on Monday showed Trump ahead of Rubio in Florida, 38%-30%. The poll shows that Trump is strong in the Panhandle and in North Florida, whereas Rubio is dominant in South Florida.

With Trump threatening to run away from the race completely, Rubio went into attack mode two weeks ago against Trump, mocking him for having a “spray tan” and remarking on how small his hands were. Some political analysts said that the move wasn’t a good one for the senator, seeing how it damaged his brand as a positive, optimistic candidate.

Rubio said he only made those attacks on the campaign trail, but that they he had to do it.

“Donald Trump is a bully, and bullies need to be stood up to,” he said. “That’s not going to be my campaign, and it hasn’t been. That happened for one or two days. He had been offending everyone from the disabled, to minorities to women for the better part of 12 months, and, at least where I come from, when someone goes around doing that to people , eventually someone has to stand up to them, no matter what the consequences might be.”

“That was not Marco, so hopefully he’ll resonate more with policy and issues,” said Temple Terrace resident Marinel O’Dowd.

“I think a lot of that was necessary, immediately outside of that debate,” said Tampa Bay area GOP political consultant Brock Mikosky, who volunteers on Rubio’s team in Hillsborough County. “But there’s always a point at which there are diminishing returns on the investment of some sort of attack like that.”

Several members of the audience noted the dire straights that Rubio stands in the election, but referred to how he was a major underdog to Charlie Crist in the U.S. Senate race in 2010 as well.

Others felt he’s been getting fair media coverage.

“I think what’s happening is the media is driving the election,” said Port Richey part-time resident Pete Ciavarri, who is registered to vote in New York. “They give Donald Trump 90 percent of the coverage. If they did with that with Marco Rubio, or any of the other canddiates for that matter, people would have a better choice.”

“He was the candidate I was hoping would get the nomination, he lost a lot of momentum,” admitted Pasco County resident Mary Surnicki. She said she attended Trump’s rally on Saturday in Orlando, and noted how “this is a little bit mellower and calmer,” adding that she was surprised there weren’t more people in attendance.

When asked about that fact, Rubio brushed it off.

“If crowd size was indicative of his support, he’d be blowing everybody away everywhere, ” Rubio told reporters.”He’s now starting to lose states as you’ve seen. I wouldn’t judge campaigns by crowd sizes.”

That’s probably true, as Bernie Sanders has been attracting huge crowd on the Democratic side, yet trails Hillary Clinton in the delegate count.

But unless Rubio puts some wins on the board – well, unless he wins Florida – it won’t matter at all, as he keeps his fragile hopes to become president this year alive.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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