DALLAS — Facing his first Texas crowd Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio gave a wide-ranging speech that touched on nearly every conceivable topic — except his fellow Republican presidential candidates.
Rubio cycled through the major topics of the 2016 election cycle — immigration, national security, gun control — and offered specifics ranging from college credit for military veterans to term limits for U.S. Supreme Court justices. Carefully avoiding attacks on his GOP competitors, the freshman Florida senator focused his barbs on Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
“I want to know, how is Hillary Clinton going to lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck,” he told the crowd of roughly 900. “How is she going to lecture me about student loans? I’ve had student loans.”
Rubio spent a significant portion of the speech addressing his personal connection to the country’s immigrants, saying the conversation on immigration has shifted because of the rise of ISIS.
“My parents are immigrants, my wife’s entire family are immigrants, I grew up in a community of immigrants and I live today in a community of immigrants,” he said. “Let me tell you: This issue has changed.”
“As recently as a year ago, the focus was on what you do with someone who has been here for 15 years, who has violated immigration laws but is otherwise a good person,” Rubio added. “But now we are dealing with an apocalyptic jihadist group that is using our immigration system against us.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, who has surged in recent polls in Iowa, has criticized Rubio for inconsistency on immigration. His campaign has focused on Rubio’s participation in the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” a group of senators who wrote a plan for comprehensive immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship. The Cruz campaign has also mocked Rubio for smaller perceived offenses — including, on Wednesday, making fun of Rubio for wearing “high-heeled booties.”
Rubio made no mention of the tension between the two campaigns during or after his speech, which several of his supporters said they appreciated. Supporter John Green, from Hickory Creek, said he liked both candidates but felt Rubio was better prepared for the demands of the Oval Office.
“I think he’s knowledgeable, articulate — he seems to have a command of what’s going on,” Green said. “I like Ted Cruz also, but I think he’s got a little bit of a hard edge.”
His wife, Gini, agreed, but said she felt more strongly opposed to Cruz.
“There’s just something about him that I don’t think is presidential,” she said.
Other attendees at the event focused on Rubio’s electability. State Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, introduced Rubio and is serving as the state co-chair of his campaign along with state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock. Frank said he fervently believes Rubio would have the best chance of winning big in the general election.
“He is absolutely the candidate that can help us win in November,” Frank said. “Isn’t that what it’s all about?”
Supporter Heath Scott, who drove two hours from Temple to attend, said he agreed with Frank’s analysis.
“For too long, Republicans have been dogged as the party of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and we’ve been killed with that label. But now you have somebody here who doesn’t fit any of that criteria,” Scott said. “He’s younger, Hispanic — and he can beat Hillary.”
After the event, Rubio left for a private fundraiser held by Tom Hicks, former owner of the Texas Rangers. He’s had a handful of fundraising trips to the state since launching his campaign in in April.