Scott Lynn, a department store clerk in Northern Virginia, is voting for Donald Trump because he expects the billionaire to “shake up” Washington.
“He’s a brilliant man,” Lander said of Trump. “He just doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.”
As polls show Trump leading in nearly every state participating in the whirlwind of Super Tuesday Republican primaries and caucuses, Rubio is pouring resources into Virginia, a marquee battleground where he hopes to emerge as a measured alternative to the combative mogul.
Besides airing more than $500,000 in television ads in Virginia this weekend, Rubio plans four stops in the state on Sunday, including Leesburg, the type of affluent Washington suburb he needs to dent Trump’s momentum.
Even as polls signal Trump’s strength in Virginia, recent interviews with more than two dozen voters in Prince William County suggest that some in the electorate are dissatisfied with their choices and that Rubio may have an opportunity to expand support.
Thirty miles southwest of Washington, Prince William is the state’s second-largest county, with an ever-burgeoning population of affluent professionals, government bureaucrats, military officers, evangelical conservatives, immigrants and blue-collar workers.
Once reliably conservative, the county has become a bellwether for a state that has turned more moderate, supporting President Obama twice after having backed President George W. Bush.
“If Trump carries Prince William, it shows he has appeal across a range of Republicans,” said Robert Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor. “It’s up to the other candidates to show that they can appeal across the Republican electorate.”
In the interviews, voters criticized the candidates’ personalities, not their policies. Some said Trump’s rhetoric is offensive. Some said the demeanor of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas made them uncomfortable. Others complained that Rubio is too inexperienced.
A number of voters said they like Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson but would not waste their vote on candidates with little chance of winning.
Walking to her car at a mall in Bristow, Natalie Cook, 48, said she despairs when listening to her daughter and husband praise Trump, warning them that he would turn the presidency into “a reality show and paint the White House gold.”
Cruz, she said, seems like “plastic” and she doesn’t know enough about Rubio to commit. As for Carson, a candidate who exudes a mild temperament, she said, “I could see him being a yoga teacher.”
“They all just seem so untrustworthy, like they came out of a vending machine,” Cook said. “I don’t know what to do.”
Jim Hagey, 72, a retired computer systems analyst, was that rare voter who was certain of his choice, saying he would vote for Cruz because “he’s a constitutional conservative and I consider myself the same.”
“It hasn’t been a question who I would support,” Hagey said after shopping for groceries at a Harris Teeter in Bristow. “I’ve been with him since the beginning.”
Across the parking lot, Tom Joyce, 53, a maintenance worker for the Prince William school system, said he would prefer if Trump “would tone down some of his ideas — a lot of what he says is what Americans say in private but won’t say in public.”
Joyce said he has supported Trump from the moment the real estate tycoon announced his candidacy and criticized the Affordable Care Act. "He's not a career politician," Joyce said. "I know he's a nut, but I also know we can get rid of him after four years if it's not working out."
Not all voters were willing to excuse the billionaire.
Retired veteran Charlie Daniels, 63, who was eating steak and mashed potatoes at a Manassas tavern, said Trump’s appearances on the campaign trail strike him as “too boisterous.”
“He dishes out a lot, but can he back up what he’s saying?” he asked.
A few seats over, Rich Bowen, 69, a retiree, agreed that Trump needs “to go to finishing school and be a little more polished.” Choosing a candidate is difficult, he said, because Rubio is “too young” and Cruz “has too many rough edges.”
“I’d vote for Ben Carson, but he doesn’t have the killer instinct,” Bowen said, adding that he also likes Kasich “but he can’t get a majority together.”
Shopping at Walmart in Haymarket, Hillary Malsch, 44, an art teacher, also expressed frustration, saying Trump’s heated rhetoric makes her uneasy, as does Cruz’s history of squabbling with Senate colleagues.
That leaves Rubio, Malsch said, although she added: “I wish he had more experience. There aren’t a lot of good options out there.”
Bill Card, chairman of the Prince William County Republican Committee, said he has detected a measure of enthusiasm among voters for Trump, but he said he’s unsure whether they will turn out to vote Tuesday. “There’s not as many people who are as personally invested in politics now,” Card said. “It’s hard to motivate people.”
For Trump, Prince William is an opportunity to demonstrate that he can appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, as he has shown in Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire.
Virginia is more important for Rubio and Cruz, said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University who said recent polling suggests that Rubio has the most potential. In one survey, more than 40 percent of voters said they approved of Rubio even though only 22 percent said he would get their vote, Kidd said.
“Ultimately, somebody has to take those voters away from Donald Trump or he’s not stoppable,” Kidd said. “If Rubio doesn’t do well in Virginia, I don’t know how he can make the case that he’s the moderate alternative.”
Mirroring the electorate, Prince William’s political establishment also is fragmented.
Ken Cuccinelli II, the state’s former attorney general, has been advocating on behalf of Cruz. Rep. Barbara J. Comstock (R-Fairfax), whose district includes Prince William, endorsed Rubio. And Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Board of County Supervisors, is Trump’s state chair.
Stewart, who drew national attention nearly a decade ago for his opposition to illegal immigrants, said he “completely agrees” with Trump on most issues, with the exception of his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
“I like his tone and his language,” Stewart said. “Cruz is a dud. Rubio has some charisma, but it’s the old style — Kennedyesque. He’s a smooth talker, but people are done with that. They want a blunt talker.”
Cuccinelli said he has been calling voters on Cruz’s behalf and finds that Republicans have narrowed their choice to Trump or Cruz.
“I have never encountered someone deciding between Trump and one of the candidates other than Cruz,” Cuccinelli said. He said Cruz is the only candidate who can appeal to Trump’s supporters, who he worries could abandon the party if the billionaire is not the Republican nominee.
In the back of the Nokesville Market, Ed Chapman sipped coffee and longed for an earlier era. Spread out before him were drawing pencils, a sketch book and a photograph of Ronald Reagan that he was using as a portrait model.
Reagan was his kind of leader, he said. Strong. Articulate. Mature.
The current crop of Republicans pales by comparison — especially Trump, whose plan to build a wall along the Mexican border “is incredibly stupid,” he said. Chapman’s choice is Carson, despite his faltering candidacy.
“I like his life story,” Chapman said, “and I like what he says.”
In Manassas, as she ate lunch with friends at a mall, Betty Phillips, 75, said she finds herself enjoying Trump’s antics, even as she’s put off by his temperament. Rubio is preferable to Cruz, she said, if only because she doesn’t like the Texan’s appearance.
“Isn’t it awful?” she asked, laughing. “I’ve had a hard time. We’ve not got very much to pick from.”