Marco Rubio looks to Virginia for a Super Tuesday win over Trump
Florida senator seen as biggest competition to billionaire front-runner for Republican presidential nomination
Marco Rubio spent one of his final days of campaigning before Super Tuesday in Virginia, trying to convince Republican voters in the state to reject "con artist" Donald Trump and support him instead for the party's U.S. presidential nomination.
"I need your vote this Tuesday," Rubio told a packed gymnasium at a Christian college in Purcellville on Sunday, one of three events that day.
Rubio does need their votes because he badly needs to win a state on Super Tuesday if he is to slow down Trump's cruise to the nomination. His supporters are hoping Virginia, one of 11 states holding a Republican primary on March 1, could be that state.
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It's known as a purple state: sometimes in general elections it swings Republican, sometimes Democrat, making it a key battleground. It voted for Barack Obama twice and Republicans are fighting to turn the state red once again.
Some Republicans at the Rubio event were supporters, others were undecided and there were a few who clearly were not fans, holding up signs that said: "Marco Rubio Empty Suit."
Rubio, who was wearing a suit, took the protesters in stride and continued with a speech that included plenty of swipes at Trump.
He said he hoped this election would be about ideas but it hasn't turned out that way because of Trump. "As a result, today the Republican Party, the conservative movement, the party of Lincoln and Reagan, is on the verge of potentially nominating a con artist to be our nominee," Rubio said.
He spoke to an enthusiastic crowd in Purcellville and his supporters said he has the qualifications for the job.
"He's got the best vision for the future of the country," Jeff Leist said while holding his baby who was wearing a red onesie with the words "My parents love me so they are voting for Marco Rubio" printed on it.
Stakes high for Rubio
"He's young, he's got energy, he's balanced and he actually gives details around his plans rather than just soundbites," another supporter, Doug Cowhill, said.
Rubio isn't the only one who has been spending time in Virginia. Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich paid visits last week and Ben Carson has an event Monday night while Trump held an event during the day.
Trump is leading by a wide margin in the latest poll but his Virginia campaign chairman, Corey Stewart, said in an interview that Rubio is his biggest competition.
Rubio needs the win more than Trump does though, Stewart said, adding that Virginia is a state where someone like Rubio should do well.
"If Rubio is unable to win in Virginia, which has traditionally nominated very establishment-oriented candidates, then he's not going to be able to win anywhere," said Stewart.
Rubio and Cruz have been battling each other for the anti-Trump vote and the pressure is on Rubio from the establishment wing of the party to put a stop to Trump.
"If he's going to do it, he's got to be able to win in a state like Virginia," said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "As the de facto establishment candidate, he needs to do well, particularly in northern Virginia, to have a shot."
Compared to other parts of the state, NoVa, as the northern region is called, has voters with higher levels of education and income, a stable economy and a growing population that is younger and more ethnically diverse than parts in the south and west.
It is home to the suburbs of the country's capital and to many people who work for the federal government or for a company that has a contract with it.
3 kinds of Republicans in Virginia
Northern Virginia is not where you're going to find Trump's base of support, according to Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, in Virginia's south.
Kidd said there are three kinds of Republican voters in Virginia: the angry white voter, the socially conservative evangelical Christian voter and the country club, chamber of commerce-type voter.
To win Virginia, a candidate has to win over at least two of those three groups and so far Trump is managing to do that the best, Kidd said. He's appealing to some of the angry white voters who are in areas hit hard by the recession, and he's stealing evangelical support from Rubio and Cruz. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the state's influential Liberty University in Lynchburg, endorsed Trump, which gave him credibility among evangelical voters.
Stewart, Trump's Virginia campaign chairman, said Trump is not only attracting all kinds of Republicans, but he's also eating into Democrat support. Virginia has an open primary, meaning voters don't have to register as a Republican or Democrat in advance. Theoretically Democrats can vote in the Republican primary and vice versa.
Trump is attracting new voters, some of them blue collar union workers who normally vote Democrat. But this year, with concerns about the economy, they are giving Trump a serious look, said Stewart.
The country club Republicans are spread throughout the state but there is a concentration of them in northern Virginia, not far from D.C. That's where Rubio is expected to do well.
Just across the Potomac River from Washington is Old Town, Alexandria, an adorable and well-preserved historic town where streets are made of cobblestone and the sidewalks of red bricks.
The main street is lined with restaurants, boutique clothing stores, antique, home décor and gift shops with names like Tradition de France Imported Furniture and The Dutch Lady Fine European Gifts.
Alexandria is most definitely not Trump territory, or any other Republican's territory — it's heavily Democrat.
"I'm a Hillary fan," said Ernie Hazera, who had just walked out of the Uptowner Café one day last week. Inside the café, however, Caitlin Brazill had the opposite view of Clinton and plans on voting for Bernie Sanders.
Clinton expected to beat Sanders
"To me she represents the past. She comes with a lot of baggage," the 40-year-old said. "I feel like she also changes who she is to please her audiences and so I think Bernie is the one who is most honest and the most real candidate."
Several local voters said they don't dislike Clinton, they just like Sanders better.
"In some respects I wish she had been president and her husband had not," said Bill Purdy as he waited for a bus. "It just gets too close to dynastic rule … I think every family should be entitled to one occupancy of the White House." If a Republican wins the election in November, he added, he would like to move to Canada.
Clinton is leading Sanders in the polls but will still make appearances in Virginia on Monday to appeal to voters. Her husband campaigned in Alexandria last week.
Given that the town is a Democrat stronghold, John Kasich's campaign office right on the main street seemed a little out of place. The Ohio governor has been hanging on in the Republican race despite poor finishings so far and like Rubio, he's looking to Virginia for a win.
Inside, volunteers were busy working the phones and Scott Blake, Kasich's regional political director, said there are still Republican votes to lobby for in the neighbourhood.
"We think this is a vote-rich area for us," said Blake. "Frankly, the data that we've had come back from knocking on doors substantiates that."
Kasich spent 18 years in Congress so he's known in the capital region, Blake noted. Kasich will spend part of Super Tuesday in the state, making his pitch for last-minute votes.
At the Rubio rally in Purcellville, his supporters know he has an uphill climb to beat Trump on Tuesday. Sherri Seeger said she's counting on "intelligent Republicans" to wake up and realize they need to go out and vote.
"I think there is an incentive to push harder now so we can beat Trump, he's the one who scares me the most," she said.
Mary Lou Cummings is counting on something else to lead Rubio to victory.
"We're praying," she said.