Marco Rubio was on the defensive Tuesday, downplaying his weak showing on the most important day so far of the GOP primaries.
In a speech in Florida, and in a Fox News interview, Rubio – who won the Minnesota caucus – insisted that he is the strongest rival to Donald Trump in the GOP fight for the nomination.
The senator from Florida balked at characterization of Super Tuesday results as making it a race between Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz. Trump won most of the 11 states, Cruz won two – his home state of Texas, and Oklahoma. Cruz also won the first presidential contest, the Iowa caucus.
Rubio argued that Cruz had failed to meet his own expectations.
“Tonight was supposed to be Ted Cruz’s night,” Rubio said in a Fox News interview. “He ended up winning his home state and sharing delegates, and the neighboring state of Oklahoma and sharing delegates.”
“My campaign was not built the way his was, on arguing that Super Tuesday was my firewall,” he said. “He was supposed to clean up tonight. Ted hasn’t been able to win those states.”
Rubio gained momentum in the Iowa caucus, where he came in with a strong third place showing, just one point behind Trump.
He took a nose-dive, however, during a rare poor performance at the GOP debate in New Hampshire, where New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has since left the race, relentlessly attacked Rubio, who seemed to lose his composure.
But after the New Hampshire bruising, he rebounded, doing well in debates and coming in second in the South Carolina primary and Nevada caucus. Then his one-time mentor and GOP rival Jeb Bush dropped out of the race, sending more supporters to get behind Rubio as the so-called GOP establishment candidate who could provide an alternative to Trump and Cruz.
As he has been saying in recent weeks, Rubio stressed on Tuesday that he will become more competitive now, as the race moves to his home state of Florida, which holds its primary on March 15, and other places.
“Now the map starts to get really much better for us,” Rubio said in the Fox News interview.
“We’re going to be in this race as long as it takes to make sure [Trump] never gets to 1,237 delegates and we do," he said, in reference to total number of delegates the Republican nominee must receive.
"Look at the states that are coming up now,” he said. “Those are not states where Ted Cruz is going to do well in.”
Rubio said he is the only one who can stop Trump from becoming the nominee and who can unify the GOP.
“I’m the only one that consistently beats Hillary Clinton in the polls.”
Rubio conceded that he should have pushed back against his rivals attacks against him earlier, and being intent on discussing policy and deflecting criticism.
Rubio said that he had felt sure that, particularly in the case of Trump, voters would see for themselves a lack of substance. In recent days, Rubio has gotten more prickly and personal in his attacks on Trump, who also has been hitting the senator hard.
“When we’re done here in Florida, we’ll win Florida, and we’ll win other winner-take-all states,” Rubio said. “That’s when we’re really going to take off. We’re not going to turn over the party of Lincoln and Reagan” to Trump.
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