It was not the homecoming party Marco Rubio probably envisioned when he launched his presidential campaign 11 miles from here last April.
Politically wounded by a string of devastating losses in the Republican primaries and caucuses, Rubio returned to his home turf Wednesday afternoon for an outdoor campaign rally where from the outset he had to swat down the possibility that he will end his campaign before Tuesday’s primary.
“Let me tell you something: I will be on that ballot on Tuesday. I will campaign as long and as hard as it takes,” said the senator from Florida, joined onstage by his wife, Jeanette.
Rubio told the crowd to beware of “dirty tricks.” He said if anyone receives phone calls claiming that he is ending his campaign: “You tell them you heard it from me — they are lying to you.”
But some in the crowd here in this heavily Hispanic city near Miami had effectively thrown in the towel.
“I’ve been around for a long time,” said Sal Pittelli, 70, of Hialeah. “And you can smell the flop sweat.”
Pittelli said Rubio “should have talked issues” in a lot of the states where he recently performed poorly. “It does not do any good to call someone a con man,” he said, referring to Rubio’s line of attack on GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
Marta Hernandez, 70, who lives in Miami but is originally from Cuba, was holding out hope that Rubio could still win in Florida on Tuesday. But she spoke like her candidate had already been defeated.
“It’s disappointing that people haven’t been able to see his worth,” said Hernandez.
A handful of new polls released Wednesday showed Rubio trailing Donald Trump by double-digits in the Florida primary.
The subdued gathering here in the metropolitan area that Rubio calls home was a striking departure from the large and rowdy crowds was attracting in Iowa and New Hampshire at the height of his popularity just a month ago.
With a slightly hoarse voice, Rubio, who is Cuban American, delivered a stump speech in both English and Spanish before doing an interview on stage with Megyn Kelly of Fox News.
“I have never discussed dropping out with anyone on my team or anyone on planet Earth,” he told Kelly.
The campaign event was staged on a football field, but most of the field went unused.
One woman wearing a Rubio hat brought a “Dump Trump” sign and some others sported Rubio buttons and T-shirts. But as they waited to see Rubio speak under the bright South Florida sun, the crowd was notably quieter than the boisterous masses he had attracted earlier in the contest.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Sean Sullivan