He stands out in debates for a distinctive quality — discussing policies, citing data, and not hurling verbal grenades at other candidates.
And yet, Sen. Marco Rubio is the first one to marvel over the public marveling over his preference to keep his presidential campaign focused on issues.
“How novel!” the Florida Republican said in amusement when asked about this, which has distinguished him in the two GOP debates held thus far, and in his campaign.
Rubio said he always has been averse to pitbull politics — mauling rivals through quick one-liners or personal attacks.
“That’s a conscious decision I’ve made throughout my entire time in public service,” Rubio said in an interview with Fox News Latino. “I didn’t run for office to talk bad about people. I ran for office and I’m in the Senate and I want to be president because I want to change the direction of this country.”
Rubio is no doormat. He hits back, and hard, when cornered.
One of the moments that drew the most laughs in the first debate was after real estate mogul Donald Trump’s sweeping statement that the candidates on stage had taken donations from him at some time in their career.
"You’d better believe it," Trump said. "Most of the people on this stage, I’ve given to – just so you understand – a lot of money."
Rubio shot back: "Not me! Not me!" And he added: "Actually to be clear, he supported Charlie Crist,” referring to a rival candidate in his race for Senate in 2010. Fact checkers confirmed Rubio’s statement.
Another defining and widely noted moment, where Rubio shot down a Trump statement without making it personal, was when he spoke about the futility of building a wall to resolve illegal immigration.
“Let me set the record straight on a couple of things,” Rubio said in the debate, which focused for a while on immigration. “The first is, the evidence is now clear that the majority of people coming across the border are not from Mexico. They’re coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. Those countries are the source of the people that are now coming in its majority.”
“I also believe we need a fence. The problem is if El Chapo builds a tunnel under the fence, we have to be able to deal with that.”
Rubio told Fox News Latino that is critical in the election is to “have a serious campaign about the real issues.”
“That’s what I’m always going to do,” he said. “I’ve always said that I want to run a campaign that my children and the people that support me can be proud of.”
Trump has taken the polar opposite approach, making his campaign very much about other candidates and ripping them apart, in often crude terms.
Lately, Rubio has been his target, as the junior senator has risen anew in the polls, though he still trails Trump.
On Monday, Trump’s campaign sent Rubio a shipment of bottled water labeled "Trump Ice Natural Spring Label."
It was a mockery, evidently, of the moment during Rubio’s GOP rebuttal of the 2013 State of the Union address by Obama when the senator stopped to take a drink of water. Trump’s camp also included two towels that bore his slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Rubio has taken Trump’s efforts to provoke in stride, last week saying he didn’t want to be part of the mogul’s “freak show.”
Rubio often is asked about his running against former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his one-time mentor and friend. When he has seemed to draw a contrast between himself and Bush, it is not overt, and usually delivered as having a choice between yesterday and today, the old and the new.
“He’s still a friend,” Rubio said to Fox News Latino.
“We’re running for the same position, but so are a lot of other people,” Rubio said. “I’m not running against Jeb Bush, I’m running for president. I have tremendous admiration and respect for him personally. He did a great job as governor of Florida.”
But, Rubio says, these times and the presidency call for a change, for new ideas, a new face.
“This is the 21st century, we have to confront the issues of today and now,” Rubio said. “I’m not running against him or, for that matter, any other candidate in the field.”
Again, he said, going back to his favorite point, it’s about ideas, issues, and what a candidate offers to do about them.
“The media is always looking for some conflict,” he said, “and I accept that as part of the political process. But this election isn’t about me, or anyone else running.”
“We have hundreds of thousands of young Americans who owe thousands of dollars in student loans,” Rubio said. “You have a radical jihadist group that’s beheading people and trying to recruit Americans to join their cause. We have millions of people in this country living paycheck to paycheck, and an economy that’s stagnated.”
That means giving everyone access to the kind of education and training that can equip them with the skills to find good jobs, Rubio said, and making sure those jobs pay well.
He wants, he says, a country where parents can do what his did – give their children the tools to do better than they did.
“We live in a country where everyone should have the chance to go as far as their talent and their work will take them,” he said.