LARGO, Fla. — Sen. Marco Rubio strongly condemned the chaos exhibited at Donald Trump’s recent rallies and called on the Republican front-runner to denounce the violence.
Visibly frustrated by the prospects of Trump’s ascendance, Rubio’s voice cracked as he raised — for the first time — the specter of not supporting the businessman as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
“I mean, I already talked about the fact that I think Hillary Clinton would be terrible for this country, but the fact that you’re even asking me this question,” he said, pausing before continuing. “I still at this moment continue to intend to support the Republican nominee, but it’s getting harder every day."
Later, he warned supporters here in his home state that if Trump is the party nominee, “it will fracture the Republican Party.”
Rubio and other presidential contenders lashed out Friday night and faulted Trump for failing to condemn violence and threats of violence at his recent public events. Their comments came as the Trump campaign abruptly canceled a rally in Chicago amid fears that the event would lead to widespread violence inside and outside the venue.
On Saturday morning, Rubio spoke especially to the caustic rhetoric used at Trump rallies, saying that “Our politics have basically become like the comments section of blogs. This is what happens when political candidates talk as if they’re people on Twitter. And the result is now bleeding over into the broader culture.”
“In many ways he doesn’t want to say anything to his supporters, because he doesn’t want to turn them off. Because he understands that the reason they’re voting for him is because he’s tapped into this anger,” he added. “The problem is leadership has never been about taking people’s anger and using it to get them to vote for you. If it is, it’s a dangerous style leadership.”
Rubio lay blame across society for the the violence and caustic rhetoric of recent weeks — he faulted candidates, people protesting those candidates, political parties and the news media.
“The protesters are not blameless, some of these people are organized elements who are paid. Others just went there for the intent of disrupting an event,” he said. “And you don’t have a right to disrupt an event just because you disagree with someone.”
“But I think we also have to look at the rhetoric of the front-runner in the presidential campaign,” he added. “This is a man who in rallies has told his supporters to basically beat up the people who are in the crowd and he’ll pay their legal fees. Someone who’s basically encouraged the people in the audience to rough up anyone who stands up and says something he doesn’t like.”
The media is also at fault, Rubio said, because for too long Trump’s taunts of protesters and calls for violence were ignored. “Some people thought they were cute. And he’s gotten an extraordinary amount of coverage for all the stuff he says that’s outrageous. … It’s wall-to-wall coverage, and it’s only elevated him even more.”
Rubio grew visibly frustrated as he recounted how policy speeches he gave for months were largely ignored and his rallies were rarely covered live on cable television news until last month when he decided to taunt Trump’s physical appearance and behavior. The senator later apologized for the Trump remarks and said again on Saturday that he never plans to attack his rival like that again.
The winner-take-all Florida Republican primary is on Tuesday, and Rubio is still trailing Trump in recent surveys. He is campaigning Saturday in the Tampa region before flying to Pensacola later in the day for a rally. He is scheduled to visit the Villages, a large retirement community north of Orlando, on Sunday. At the events, he is poised to encourage supporters to vote this weekend — the early voting period ends on Sunday.
With his campaign on the brink of collapse, Rubio wouldn’t say Saturday whether he will remain in the presidential race if he loses on Tuesday.
“I’m focused on winning Florida — I haven’t thought about Wednesday. I said it yesterday. I literally don’t know what I’m having for lunch or dinner today. … I intend to win Florida, we haven’t made any decisions about after Florida,” he said.