Marco Rubio touted his principles and policy proposals during a South Carolina town-hall-style meeting Monday, but his message could be boiled down to “vote for me if you want to win.”
After a fractious, nationally televised Republican debate in Greenville on Saturday, Rubio told voters at York Technical College that he was the only candidate who can unify a divided party, while still reaching out to people who don’t already vote Republican.
“We can’t afford to just make a point” in this election, the Florida senator said. “I’m not just a conservative. I’m a conservative who can win.”
Rubio swung through Rock Hill less than a week before South Carolina’s GOP primary Saturday, one of six remaining Republican candidates criss-crossing the state. Following a weaker-than-expected finish in New Hampshire, Rubio needs to convince voters to move him ahead of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to be the party’s next presidential nominee.
We can’t afford to just make a point.
Sen. Marco Rubio, on the GOP nomination
Perhaps more importantly, he needs to beat out establishment favorite Jeb Bush as well as and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who came from behind to finish second in New Hampshire, as the alternative to frontrunners Rubio sees as too divisive to win a general election.
To do that, Rubio said he wants to reach out to minority voters. For starters, he noted his own immigrant background. His parents left Cuba before he was born, and he said he feels lucky his parents came to the U.S. rather than going elsewhere in Latin America.
“I know I wouldn’t be running for the highest office in that land,” he said. “I’m blessed God inspired them to come here in the first place.”
But immigration is also an issue where many Republican voters are weary. In response to a question from the audience, Rubio had to defend his support for a 2013 immigration overhaul that passed the Senate but ultimately died in the House. The senator said he voted for the bill “so a Republican House could make it better.”
Another voter told Rubio she heard President Barack Obama talk about unifying the country, “but then every time I hear him talk, he demonizes Republicans.” Would Rubio do a better job, she asked, of working with the other party?
“Just because I think someone is wrong doesn’t mean I think they’re a bad person,” Rubio said. “There are people in this country with different opinions and they elect people to represent them. We still need to work together on the things we do agree on.”
In the Senate, Rubio says he has even worked with Vermont’s Bernie Sanders – the self-declared democratic socialist running for the Democratic presidential nomination – on reforming the Veterans Administration, even though the two disagree on hiring and firing practices in the agency.
That didn’t stop Rubio from taking his own swings at the socialist Sanders – “he admits it” – and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who Rubio said is “disqualified” from being president because of her handling of the attack on a U.S. diplomatic consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“Anyone who lies to the families of the victims who lost their lives defending our country the way she lied to the families of Benghazi can never be commander-in-chief,” he said.
An African-American voter told Rubio he was considering supporting him, but said others in the black community don’t feel welcome in the Republican Party. Rubio said the party needed to reach out to minority voters through issues like criminal justice reform and touting diversion programs that will keep young people out of jail for minor offenses.
“If you spend time in jail, there’s a greater chance you’ll become a career criminal because you’re basically in criminal college,” he said.
Hillary Clinton is disqualifed from being commander-in-chief.
Speaking with reporters after Monday’s town hall, Rubio said he expects to do well in South Carolina – although he said it’s still too early in the race to call it a “must win” state for his campaign – and hit back at one of his opponents in Saturday’s primary.
“Ted Cruz’s campaign is just making things up about me on a regular basis,” he said, arguing an ad the Cruz campaign pulled last week distorted his record on immigration. “You saw what he did to Ben Carson in Iowa with the phone calls saying he had dropped out.”
Rubio said he would take the high road in the name of party unity heading into November’s election.
“I never attack the other candidates. If I have to, I’ll respond,” he said. “I’m the only one running who can bring the party together. That’s important, because if we’re not together, we can’t win.”