THE VILLAGES, Fla. -- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) criticized the federal government in which he has served for nearly five years during a presidential campaign stop here Monday.
Rubio's sharp criticism for an institution he accused of "self-inflicted" problems highlighted one of his chief challenges he moves up in the polls and tries to keep pace with outsider candidates Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson: He's a member of Congress looking to tap into the anti-establishment anger that has fueled their campaigns.
"The deeper problem is that never -- certainly in my lifetime and probably in yours as well -- has there ever been a government more out of touch with its people than our federal government is today," Rubio told a crowd filled with retirees. "And by the way, I wish I could tell you that it was just Democrats. It's Republicans too."
But Rubio did not endorse Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere's call for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to step aside on the heels of the decision of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to leave his post at the end of next month.
"I'm not calling for anyone to resign," Rubio told reporters.
Rubio's trip here came amid a rise in the polls following his well-received performance in the second televised debate. As he has climbed in the national and early state standings, he has become a frequent target of criticism from Trump, who is leading the crowded GOP pack in the most recent surveys.
Rubio has hit back against Trump. But he didn't mention the front-runner in his remarks to the crowd, and he downplayed the war of words between them.
"From time to time we'll respond to something that needs to be answered," Rubio said to reporters. "But by and large, I'm focused on America."
Rubio has spent most of his adult life in politics, working his way up from the West Miami City Commission to the state House to the U.S. Senate, which he joined in 2011. Asked by a reporter how he could break through in an environment that has been favorable to political newcomers, he responded: "We're going to run a campaign based on what we want to do for this country."
Florida's March 15 primary is shaping up as a central front in the fight for the Republican nomination. Rubio and his mentor, former Florida governor Jeb Bush are expected to compete hard for their home state.
While he didn't mention Bush in his remarks, Rubio took a swipe at state and municipal executives who tout their job creation records. Bush routinely highlights his.
"Any time you see a politician say, 'When I was governor, when I was mayor, when I was whatever, we created millions of jobs,' red flag of caution: presidents don't create jobs," Rubio said, adding: "The private sector creates jobs."
Later, he urged the crowd not to "promote the next person in line or the most familiar name."
Billed as "Florida's friendliest retirement hometown," The Villages is a sprawling community about an hour north of Orlando where golf carts share the roads with cars and political lean is decidedly Republican. It's become a standard stop for GOP hopefuls. Mitt Romney stumped here in 2012, famously singing "America the Beautiful."
H. Gary Morse, a billionaire who developed the area, was a major Republican donor before his death in 2014. Morse gave $100,000 to a super PAC supporting Romney in 2o12.
Monday's event marked the third time Rubio has returned to Florida to campaign since his April launch in Miami, a spokeswoman said. Rubio will focus his attention on a key early voting state later this week when he makes a swing through eastern Iowa on Thursday and Friday.
"He's a pretty impressive young man," said Chuck Freedman, who now lives in The Villages after spending years in suburban Washington, speaking of Rubio. "But as far as the decision for this [election], I haven't made up [my mind] yet."
Among the candidates he is weighing: Carson and Fiorina.