Marco Rubio rallies in Minneapolis

With a week to go before caucuses, the Republican hopeful drew about 1,600 people to the downtown Hyatt Regency

Supporters surrounded Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at a downtown Minneapolis rally Tuesday. Credit: Andrew Heiser

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio brought his message to Minneapolis Tuesday afternoon, telling a crowd of supporters the 2016 election would be crucial in determining whether future generations can live the American dream.

The Florida senator spoke to about 1,600 people at the downtown Hyatt Regency, serenaded by chants of “Marco” as he preached the importance of the upcoming election. The visit comes as candidates prepare for so-called “Super Tuesday,” when Minnesota and 11 other states hold primaries or caucuses on March 1.

“The consequences are extraordinary,” Rubio said. “This election, in many ways, is a referendum,” he later added, emphasizing that America needs to reverse course.

“This great country is headed in the wrong direction,” he said. “The good news is, if we do what needs to be done, we have a chance to make America better than it’s ever been.”

Rubio focused on several key issues, beginning with student loan debt.

“When I became a U.S. senator I still had $100,000 in student loans,” he said. “I know what that feels like. It’s crippling.”

He drew distinctions between his ideas and those of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who has been calling for free tuition.

“We are going to prove why free enterprise is the right way forward for [young people] and for our country,” Rubio said. When talking about Sanders’s positions he also said, “If you want to live in a socialist country, move to a socialist country. We want to be America.”

Rubio told the crowd he will instead shrink the federal government, simplify the tax code, and repeal the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.”

“You’re going to have a president that understands there is not a federal solution to every problem in America,” he said. “We need to make America the easiest place in the world to start a business or expand an existing one.”

He also touched on national security issues, decrying what he views as President Obama’s dismantling of the military.

“Today we are less safe than we were seven years ago,” Rubio said before repeating his admittedly prepackaged debate line about Obama carrying out an agenda to change the country.

“He knows what he’s doing,” Rubio said while mentioning cuts to the defense budget and aging Air Force equipment. “Not only is it unsafe, it’s unfair to our men and women in uniform. Defense spending is not the cause of our debt.”

Rubio also called for more accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying veterans deserve more attention and appreciation.

“They took care of us, now we have to take care of them,” he said.

On other national security matters, Rubio promised a “real war on terror” if elected president and vowed to send captured terrorists to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, despite President Obama’s plans to close the prison.

Rubio did not hesitate to highlight his disagreements with President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination.

“For the first time in eight years you’re going to have a president that follows the constitution,” he said. “On my first day in office I’m going to repeal every single one of Barack Obama’s unconstitutional executive orders.”

He called Clinton a “pathological liar” and said she is disqualified to be commander in chief, citing the FBI’s current investigation of her emails. Rubio also portrayed himself as unifier within the GOP.

“We have to nominate someone in the Republican Party who has a chance of winning the election,” he said. “I can bring this party together.”

He criticized the rhetoric of other GOP candidates and said the party needs to stand together to accomplish its goals and win the presidency.

“We’re all angry, we’re all frustrated, but you’ve got to solve a problem,” Rubio said, claiming actions speak louder than words.

The rally was Rubio’s second visit to Minnesota this year, and last week’s opening of his Maple Grove campaign office made him the first Republican candidate to set up shop in the state.

As Super Tuesday approaches, Rubio is trying to improve on second-place finishes to front-runner Donald Trump in the South Carolina primary and Nevada caucus. Trump has not yet visited Minnesota.

Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz are battling to be the alternative to Trump in the race for the Republican nomination, although Rubio is more likely to reap the benefits of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s recent decision to suspend his campaign. So-called Republican “establishment” figures and donors have been realigning behind Rubio in Bush’s absence, including endorsements from former Sen. Norm Coleman, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

However, Ohio Gov. John Kasich could continue to deprive Rubio of the opportunity to become the consensus establishment candidate as long as he stays in the race.

Tom Knisely, who attended Tuesday’s rally, said he supports Rubio because he is a consistent conservative and lifelong Republican.

“He’s the most electable candidate, and he’s conservative,” Knisely said. “In the past, the most electable candidate has been more moderate.”

Katie Norton, who brought her three children ages six, five, and one to the rally, said she has supported Rubio since he announced his campaign last April, partly because he values smaller government and stronger families.

“He puts that power back in the hands of families instead of politicians,” she said, also mentioning his conservative principles and his stance on immigration.

“He has real answers to political questions, not just catch phrases,” Norton said. “It’s kind of new to the Republican Party. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

Other attendees, such as 16-year-old Christian Martin, were simply interested in being informed and wanted to hear more details about Rubio’s candidacy from the man himself.

No matter what their background or motivation, Rubio promised to consider everyone’s needs as he bids for the country’s most powerful political position, which, he joked, is second only to the office of NFL commissioner.

“If you elect me president, I will be a president for all Americans,” Rubio said.

Foreshadowing his next campaign stop later in the evening, Rubio left the stage with a “Thank you Michigan … er, Minnesota!”

The Minnesota Caucuses are 7 p.m. March 1.