February 28, 2016 at 11:31 PM
SALEM, Va. -- Minnie Thompson has admired Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, calling him a role model for her two young grandsons with his positive campaign message and aversion to nasty name-calling.
The nice guy is gone. And some supporters say it's about time.
Rubio accused rival Donald Trump of being a con artist in a marathon day of campaigning across Virginia. At his final stop in southwest Virginia, he mocked the GOP front-runner for "small hands" and pores clogged with spray tan.
Thompson, a 65-year-old retiree from Christiansburg, lamented how Rubio was morphing into Trump as she waited to get into the Roanoke College gymnasium in Salem.
"I liked him better when he wasn't so …"
"Slanderous," her husband, Ken, finished.
"I guess you have to play the game," Minnie responded with a sigh.
Rubio is turning up the heat as he tries to block Trump from sweeping the 12 states that will vote on Super Tuesday.
Virginia is one of his best chances for a surprise victory. Rubio supporters interviewed at Roanoke College said he was long overdue to ramp up the negativity.
"Trump probably walks around thinking no one is going to take him down," said Amanda Billips, an 18-year-old Roanoke freshman. "But now someone is finally putting him in his place."
"Who doesn't want a good fight?" added her sophomore friend Becca Seay.
Addressing nearly 2,500 people in a hot and packed gymnasium, Rubio tore into Trump within minutes of taking the stage.
"You cannot have a policy debate with someone with no policies," Rubio said to loud applause. "We cannot turn over the conservative movement to a con artist."
He turned insults lobbed by Trump against the billionaire. He said the only reason Trump isn't as sweaty as him is because of pores clogged with spray tan. He said his rival, who has taken to calling him "Little Rubio," has tiny hands, referencing a common dig at Trump's fingers.
"You know what they say about men with small hands," Rubio said, pausing to let the audience laugh. "You can't trust 'em."
Some Rubio supporters feared his change in tone came too late to stop Trump's momentum.
"It would have been better to start sooner when you see the type of lead he had in the polls. You need to combat it," said William Robinson, an insurance salesman who drove 100 miles from the small town of Marion to see Rubio with his wife and daughter, a freshman at Roanoke College.
Brenda Johnson, a 65-year-old longtime party activist, was among those pleading for civility.
"I don't want him to go overboard on that because it's just not presidential," said Johnson, accompanied by her husband, whom she met at a College Republicans victory party for Richard Nixon in 1968. "But if he wants to joke about his makeup and tan, ehhh, it's okay."
Thompson, the grandmother worried about Rubio's recent bout of negativity, was too euphoric after the rally and getting her cellphone signed to complain about the digs against Trump. She chuckled at the crack about Trump's hands.