WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) – Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio sprinted toward the Iowa caucuses Sunday, avoiding direct confrontations with his opponents and instead, projecting a vision that looks more toward the general election.
The Florida senator was in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, part of a nine-day blitz across the state, campaigning with confidence to audiences numbering in the hundreds, as preference polls showed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and billionaire businessman Donald Trump ahead in Iowa.
Iowans will vote in the country's leadoff contest on Feb. 1.
"We are not just picking a political party," he told 400 people in a Cedar Rapids hotel ballroom. "We are picking the very identity of our nation. That is what's at stake in this election."
Campaigning in eastern Iowa, Rubio touted a scheduled joint appearance with Iowa's popular Republican freshman Sen. Joni Ernst Monday. Ernst, elected in 2014, is among several younger, newer members of Congress joining Rubio on the road — though Ernst says she will not endorse anyone before the caucuses.
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It's part of 44-year old Rubio's effort to cast himself as part of a new generation of conservative Republicans, while characterizing Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton as an embodiment of a longstanding partisan gridlock in Washington.
In recent weeks, Rubio has campaigned with newer members of Congress, who, like Rubio, were elected during the conservative tea party wave of 2010, like South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, as well Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner and South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem.
Rubio has stepped up his Iowa campaigning in recent weeks, positioning himself as the alternative to anti-establishment candidates Cruz and Trump. The Des Moines Register and Sioux City Journal, two of Iowa's largest newspapers, endorsed the Florida senator on Saturday.
And while Trump and Cruz intensified their attacks against one another in Iowa this weekend, Rubio took only light jabs at his rivals.
Rubio pointed to candidates who voted to approve a reduction in federal military spending, accusations directed at fellow Sens. Cruz and Rand Paul — though he never mentioned them by name.
"Our next president should tell you as a candidate how they will fight the war on terror," Rubio said.