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There was plenty of standing room at Marco Rubio's Jacksonville rally March 5.

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Even in Jacksonville, Marco Rubio faces enthusiasm gap

Jacksonville is one of the keys to Marco Rubio‘s narrow path to the GOP nomination, and the road show came to the Morocco Temple Saturday.

Rubio, who arrived in Jacksonville en route from an earnest, well-received address at CPAC in DC, has to win urban areas like Jacksonville to win the state. On Tuesday night, he identified “even up into Jacksonville” as one of the areas in the Sunshine State that he expects to break favorably for him, as opposed to rural North Florida and the Panhandle, which looks destined for Donald Trump.

There to see and be seen: state and local government workers, stalwarts of the Duval County Republican Party, the college educated conservatives upon which Marco’s poll numbers rely.

Missing: the evangelicals that will back Cruz; the Golden Corral conservatives that prefer “Big Donald” to Florida’s junior senator.

Rubio’s Florida campaign will be a test of the strength of the party regulars, including endorsing Mayor Lenny Curry. The campaign is on a budget that will require the high gear GOTV. The facility chosen, the 3000-capacity Morocco Temple, is a $5,000 space … chosen because they couldn’t afford the $11,000 fee for the University of North Florida arena.

Turnout? Well, the optimist would say the room was half full.

The event started with a prayer, delivered with an evangelical tinge, highlighted by a “prayer” to bring Rubio “and his bride closer together this political season.” Soon after that, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry spoke after a few more of the vocoder-drenched 128 beats per minute pop radio and aerobics-friendly dance hits that populated the Rubio pre-event playlist.

Curry extolled Rubio’s CPAC speech as “knocking it out of the park,” saying that a friend texted him to say that he was changing his vote based on it.

Likely: that friend was not Trump co-chair and former Transition Team Chair Susie Wiles.

Curry then gave his “Rubio bucked the establishment” speech, before launching into his Early Voting/Phone Bank/Door to Door call to action.

Following Curry, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez spoke, an unusual choice for this market.

Martinez gave a speech she’s been using on this tour, about working as a security guard in a parking lot at her father’s behest when she was a kid.

“And I went from being that security guard to being the first Hispanic female governor in the nation,” Martinez said, before citing “Marco’s story” as “inspiring” and “what is possible in America.”

“Marco Rubio is the one that we need as the leader of our country … right now,” Martinez said.

Then, eventually, the senator from Florida.

Applause filled the front of the room, echoing off the back walls.

“I don’t know if you can overdose on cough drops,” Rubio said, acknowledging the rasp in his voice from the flu.

Rubio gave a generalized pitch about “what kind of country we’re going to be in the 21st century,” before going into a series of National Greatness Conservatism talking points, culminating with a familiar description of Barack Obama century,” before going into a series of “national greatness conservatism” talking points, culminating with a familiar description of Obama taking the country in the wrong direction, and then haranguing Bernie Sanders for “socialism.”

“If you want to live in a socialist country, move to a socialist country,” Rubio said, before hitting Hillary Clinton for her email issue and “lies” regarding Benghazi.

“We can’t win if we don’t run as a conservative party,” before riffing toward the talking points in his CPAC speech momentarily.

Themes from there: gun rights and state and local rights, and a call for “term limits for members of Congress” and a pledge to “repeal every one of Barack Obama’s Unconstitutional Executive Orders.”

The applause came more from the front of the room than the back and the sides, as he went on his road-tested “free enterprise works” talking points.

Rubio then pivoted into wonk territory. His pledge to change regulatory structures fell flat. Saving Social Security and Medicare, and repealing Obamacare, got better reactions. As did a reference to Jacksonville’s military presence.

“Our commander-in-chief now is a weak commander-in-chief,” Rubio said, before critiquing North Korean, Chinese, and Iranian policy, and lamenting that we are “gutting the military” as “radical Islamic terrorists” flood the world.

“The pilots are younger than the planes,” Rubio said, adding that “military spending is not the cause of the national debt,” and pledging to “rebuild the military.

“I’m on a word count here; I only have so many words a day I can speak,” Rubio said, before vowing to fight a “real War on Terror” and to send all “terrorists captured alive” to Guantánamo.

The crowd trickled to the doors, as Rubio vowed enhanced support to Israel.

“This President treats the Prime Minister of Israel with less respect than he does the Ayatollah of Iran,” Rubio said, adding that he would cancel the Obama deal with Iran “on day one.”

“We’re going to take care of our veterans again,” Rubio said, before thanking the ones on hand for their service.

Rubio then talked about a “veteran who laid down on the train tracks and was killed,” who had called the VA suicide hotline … and got a call back a few days later.

“When I’m President, if you’re not serving veterans in your job at the VA, you will lose your job at the VA.”

Rubio then thanked “firefighters and police officers for all they do for us.”

The appeal to locals, by and large, was generic; the speech was mostly national, except for the rags to riches story of his 2010 run and how one of his first campaign speeches was given to the Duval County Republican Party … when Lenny Curry ran it.

“Some of the core people who believed in my campaign … were right here in Duval County,” Rubio said, remembering how “history repeats itself” in presenting him another chance to overturn a counterfeit conservative.

Lines about the “future of conservatism” and how this is the “most important election of our lifetime” did not get rousing applause; it was delayed, it was scattershot, it was distracted.

Perhaps that rhetorical disconnect explains the gap between endorsements and votes. The politicians seem to cling to the conservative brand a lot more than do the voters.

Or, as Richard Nixon said to Anwar Sadat in 1974, during a parade in Egypt: “You can turn them out, but you can’t turn them on.”

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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