Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio made his first public campaign appearance in North Texas Wednesday.
The state is an uphill battle for the Florida senator, one he’ll have to fight against a Texas senator and other candidates with Texas ties. But his aim was not at the crowded field of Republicans he has to beat to win his party’s nomination in the coming months. Instead, he aimed his fire at the Democratic front runner. He does not care for Hillary Clinton.
Rubio told the crowd of several hundred packed into the Westin Hotel ballroom that Clinton was a terrible secretary of state. He said she’s out of touch with regular people, and seemed to relish the idea of debating her.
“I want to know how she’s going to lecture me about student loans, because I had a student loan. I paid it off just four years ago with my book,” he said, telling the amused crowd it is available in paperback if they’re interested.
Rubio attacked President Obama with equal vigor, and vowed that on day one he’d roll back every executive action Obama’s taken, from recent gun control to environmental protections and the nuclear deal with Iran. He said the country had come unmoored from its constitutional roots and traditional values.
“We do need a president that is frustrated and angry and upset about the direction of our country, but that alone will not be enough,” he said. “We also need a president who knows what to do about it.”
Rubio did not call out other Republicans by name, even though he’s been sparring in recent days with fellow Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz has blasted Rubio for being inconsistent on immigration. Rubio helped draft a reform bill in 2013 that would have created a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally. But times, he said, have changed.
“ISIS is trying to use our legal immigration system against us,” he said. “They are actively recruiting people to come into this country on visa waivers, as refugees, as doctors, as fiancees.”
He pledged to take the fight to the self-described Islamic State and decried recent cuts to military spending. Part of a strong foreign policy, he said, is helping veterans by cleaning up the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“When I’m president of the United States and you work in any government especially the VA and you’re not doing a good job, you’re going to get fired,” he said.
Rubio also called for allowing veterans to use their VA benefits at private hospitals.
Throughout his speech, Rubio told his own story – the son of working class Cuban immigrants, a strict constitutionalist who challenged an establishment favorite in Florida to become a Senator. He framed himself as a conservative stalwart, but one able to appeal to a wide range of people.
Aside from one heckler who shouted at him as he took the stage, the room was filled with fans. Rubio told the crowd the heckler showed how great the US is – you can say whatever you want and not get arrested.
After the rally, Angelo Alcala of Dallas said he came undecided but left a Rubio supporter.
“He truly represents the people. I was looking around at the people who were in the crowd and I saw people my age, people who were older than myself, I saw younger people, I saw a lot of Hispanic people, other minorities. I think that’s truly encouraging.”
Linda Rolling likes that Rubio’s not as bombastic as other Republicans.
“Trump is just…..well it’s depressing,” Rolling, a Dallas-based physician, said.
Rolling is also a child of immigrants, and says Rubio’s upbringing makes him relatable.
“I just think he really understands what it is to want that American dream for people. And I think he’ll fight for it and try to do a better job,” she said. “He just seems very affable.”
Rolling is waiting for Rubio to surge in the polls. That needs to happen soon if he hopes to win. Right now, he’s polling a distant third nationally behind Cruz and Trump…he’s also running behind in Iowa, with that state’s all-important caucus just four weeks away.