MIAMI -- Racing toward the Republican presidential nomination, the junior senator from Florida is struggling in his own state against Donald J. Trump, media personality and real estate tycoon, just two weeks before voting here may sink or propel his candidacy.
Marco Rubio, 44, is one of only five remaining candidates left on a stage that has become a reality television show for the ages– the 2016 Republican presidential nomination process. Rubio, perhaps more so than the conciliatory Ohio Governor John Kasich, represents the last best hope for the GOP "establishment"– a former Tea Party candidate, a Cuban-American, who has proven his ability to operate in Washington.
And yet a poll of polls from RealClearPolitics shows Trump– whose name graces multiple properties in the Sunshine State– topping the field by up to 20 points. Unlike early voting states in the presidential nominating contest, the victor in Florida's March 15 primary wins all of its 99 delegates.
Rubio needs a victory here. And with that in mind, he is mobilizing the state's party structure that has facilitated his young and promising career.
He is also targeting a specific electorate, key both in any primary race here and in the November general election: The Jewish vote, which constitutes 10 percent of Miami and Fort Lauderdale and up to six percent of the electorate statewide.
While the state's Jewish voters number up to 500,000– for perspective, Barack Obama won the state in 2012 by just 74,000 votes– roughly two thirds of that electorate reliably votes Democratic. To vote in the Florida Republican primary, one must be a registered Republican. And fewer Floridians turn up to vote in primaries and caucuses, suggesting the Jewish vote will be a marginal factor in the March 15 race.
Nevertheless, Rubio's aggressive stance on Israel is defining his foreign policy early on in his candidacy– and he is highlighting daylight between himself and Trump, where he thinks he stands in sync with the majority of Americans and Floridians alike.
A Quinnipiac poll from August showed that 61 percent of Floridians oppose the nuclear deal reached with Iran last summer– a position reflected by Rubio. The state's legislature this week passed a law with near-unanimous support divesting the state from contracting with parties supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. And a Gallup poll from 2015 showed nationwide support for the president among American Jews narrowing to 54 percent– still higher than the national average, but lower than the point spread that he has enjoyed throughout his presidency.
Rubio may also be motivated to win over the country's largest pro-Israel donors as his candidacy enters a fateful stage. Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has long prioritized a conservative interpretation of Israeli security needs, is said to prefer Rubio among the remaining contenders.
At a debate on Thursday night in Houston, Trump was questioned for stating he would remain "neutral" in the Middle East peace process. A deal between Israel and the Palestinians, he said, would be the greatest deal of them all– and he considers himself a dealmaker.
"The position you've taken is an anti-Israel position," Rubio said in response. "And here's why. Because you cannot be an honest broker in a dispute between two sides in which one of the sides is constantly acting in bad faith."
Rubio then suggested that Trump considers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a matter of real estate– and charged that, by characterizing himself as a "negotiator," Trump is suggesting a willingness to negotiate with terrorists.
"The next president of the United States needs to be someone like me who will stand firmly on the side of Israel," Rubio said.