- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2016

MIAMI — Sen. Marco Rubio earned his place in Washington as an outsider, but for voters in this year’s Republican presidential primary, he ended up becoming too closely associated with the capital city.

Mr. Rubio’s presidential campaign, which soared and dipped over the past year, suffered a fatal blow Tuesday when he was dealt a crushing defeat in his home state at the hands of national front-runner Donald Trump.

“While we are on the right side, this year we will not be on the winning side,” Mr. Rubio said as he conceded defeat and suspended his campaign.

At one time the top second-choice pick for Republican voters, Mr. Rubio outlasted a fellow Floridian, former Gov. Jeb Bush, won contests in Minnesota, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, and posted impressive second-place finishes in South Carolina and Georgia.

But each time he seemed to catch momentum, he stumbled — first at the hands of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a debate ahead of New Hampshire’s primary, and then when he got into a bizarre and crude fight with Mr. Trump in recent weeks.

He hoped for salvation in Florida, but the voters who know him best and sent him to the Senate in 2010 as the spear tip of the tea party movement, turned against him.

SEE ALSO: Donald Trump crushes Rubio in Florida, other states still outstanding

“I didn’t think he had it in him to be president,” said Gary Hollett, a Republican who voted to send Mr. Rubio to the Senate but ended up casting his ballot for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Rubio in recent days has placed blame for his difficulties on the press, saying that when he was running a substantive campaign he didn’t get any attention, but when he started the crude remarks about Mr. Trump he got more coverage.

He quickly tried to pull back from the food fight, which at its worst appeared to question Mr. Trump’s manhood. Mr. Rubio apologized but blamed Mr. Trump for forcing the conversation in that direction. The damage, though, was done.

“Rubio was pretty strong until he decided to check everybody’s package. Started making all those stupid comments. He’s done, he’s done. I wouldn’t vote for him for nothing after what he did,” said a voter in Port St. Lucie who gave his name only as Bob. “I did vote for him before, but the bottom line is Rubio just proved that he’s an idiot.”

To be sure, the senator had his supporters.

“I felt that he had the best plan,” said Al Bloomer, voting with his wife, Linda. “He was the guy with the best plan to move forward, he was open about it, he had stuff out on his website months ago. It was clear, it was cogent. To me, he was above all of the original 17.”

But Mr. Bloomer said Mr. Rubio stumbled in some of the debates — particularly one ahead of the New Hampshire primary, where New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s withering attack left Mr. Rubio sputtering — and the senator never recovered.

“He got beat up real bad in a couple of those debates, and he didn’t start fighting back,” Mr. Bloomer said. “He was a policy guy. He’s got ideas, plans, you know? And this is not that kind of election. You’ve got to get down in the dirt, kick a guy in the teeth, and then if he’s not dead, you shoot him when you’re done. It’s sad, but that’s the way it is. He wasn’t quick enough to draw on that.”

Mr. Bloomer said he would support Mr. Rubio if the senator, who is giving up his seat at the end of this year, chooses to run for governor.

Mr. Rubio’s hopes of the governorship, though, may suffer from his performance in the presidential election.

Part of Mr. Rubio’s problem in the presidential election was that he was outflanked on the right and the left. Sen. Ted Cruz ran to his right, attacking Mr. Rubio on immigration, while a host of fellow governors stood to Mr. Rubio’s left, occupying the moderate ground.

For someone who came to Washington as the insurgent — his 2010 primary, in which he chased sitting Gov. Charlie Crist from the Republican Party, helped ignite the tea party — the change in ground beneath his feet was shocking.

“I was interested in Rubio from the beginning, but when he started flip-flopping on issues, he lost me,” said John McCalister, a Floridian who voted for Mr. Trump.

Mr. McCalister named immigration as one of Mr. Rubio’s big stumbles.

It was supposed to be one of the senator’s biggest accomplishments, proving he had the legislative heft and political pull to help shepherd a massive rewrite of immigration through Congress in 2013. President Obama was on board, as were Republican bigwigs.

But conservatives labeled the bill, which granted citizenship rights to at least 7 million illegal immigrants, an “amnesty” and said Mr. Rubio was duped by Democrats.

Voters from New Hampshire to Florida said that but for that, Mr. Rubio would have been their top choice.

Going into Tuesday, Mr. Rubio won about 18 percent of the 13 million votes cast — far behind front-runner Donald Trump’s 35 percent and Sen. Ted Cruz’s 25 percent. Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz were dead even but for Texas.

“There were too many candidates, which meant he didn’t have the chance to shine the way he could have, and there were too many missteps along the way,” said one Miami power broker, who said the bizarre and crass feud Mr. Rubio engaged in with Mr. Trump over the past month didn’t help matters.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

• Kelly Riddell can be reached at kriddell@washingtontimes.com.

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