THE VILLAGES, Fla. — The difference between the Rubio campaign and the people in its audience at The Villages is that the retirees at The Villages do not feel they are on their last legs.
They are vigorous. They are going dancing afterward. “This is my first rally!” says Donna Mezny, a retired teacher from Virginia. Tonight (as every night) they have live music and dancing in the town square, but when she and her friends saw this rally was happening, “We thought: why not pack one more thing into our day?” In Virginia, she voted for Kasich but is now changing her mind (he wants to increase taxes). So she came to see what Marco Rubio had to say. So far, she likes his message.
The Villages is a famous (notorious?) retirement community that prompts headlines like “The Villages Scandals: IRS, STDS, and Made-Up History” and articles in the New York Post such as “Retire To The Bedroom,” with its tales of sex in golf carts and Viagra black markets. It is a strange sort of adult Disneyland, complete with town squares that look like stage sets, golf carts decked out like old-fashioned cars, nightly dancing, and happy hours that feature $2.50 margaritas.
Usually, you hear “Candidate Throws Event At Retirement Community” and you think “Well, at least they will hang on his every word because they have nothing better to do” but — here, in The Villages, people clearly had better things to do. More people turned out to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for Longest Golf Cart Parade than came to hear Rubio on Sunday.
To be fair, he has a lot to compete with: it is also the second day of the Senior Games, where, just a day earlier, according to the headline in The Villages Daily Sun, Miller and Shaw had powered their way to pickleball gold.
The rally could go perhaps more smoothly.
It begins with a man who keeps referring to his candidate of choice as “Senator Marcus.” Amused murmurs ripple through the crowd.
Then the lights all go out without warning. This will not be the last time.
General Patton’s grandson brings a pair of his boots to the stage. Throughout Rubio’s stirring speech they sit there next to him, empty on top of a stool. “These are nice boots,” Rubio notes. “I wore some boots a few weeks ago. They made fun of me. Remember that?”
Rubio starts into his speech — “What is this election about?” — and a young man instantly rises from the front of the crowd and begins to yell: “I HAVE TO TELL EVERYONE THAT MARCO RUBIO IS TRYING TO STEAL MY GIRLFRIEND!” This happened, the man says, in New Hampshire!
“I didn’t even win New Hampshire!” Rubio adlibs.
Some things are just too weird to feel threatening and this is one of them. “Marco!” The crowd cheers. “Marco!” Security walks the guy away, still shouting about his girlfriend. This is very much not a Trump rally.
Rubio makes a joke about hidden cameras, then resumes his speech.
It is a good speech, some jokes about Al Gore inventing the Internet aside. It is occasionally strange (“The sons of dictators are very unpredictable people” who were “never turned down on dates, never punished, no idea how this guy is going to react under stress”), often stirring, often interrupted by cheers, shouts and applause. (“We have to get rid of this idea that just because you’re polite you’re politically correct.”) The audience applauds for what you would expect: politeness, veterans, and raising the retirement age for other, younger people.
He asks what President Obama has been doing instead of supporting the military and one man yells out “GOLF!” The crowd laughs. “I have no problem with golfing if he rebuilds our military,” Rubio tries.
Midway through the speech, as he jokes about drinking rum to get cigars off his breath, a woman in the audience shouts, “Come live in The Villages!”
“In ten years,” Rubio replies, “I’ll be ready.”
Rubio builds to a stirring conclusion. He will be a president who is a president for all Americans, he says. A real conservative. With a long career …
The lights go out again.
“A long career,” Rubio says, “in which lights go off at inopportune times and then come back on.”
The lights come back on.
But there’s a strange disconnect between a campaign fighting for its life in its home state, hoping for a miraculous come-from-behind against Trump, and this audience of people whose primary concerns are not primary-related.
Phyllis Hooper is an ardent Rubio supporter who will write him in if someone else is nominated, but even she admits she’s not sure what the politics of most of those around her at The Villages are. They haven’t volunteered and she hasn’t asked. “Too busy enjoying their life,” she says.
They have things to look forward to after Tuesday.