LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Even before Marco Rubio hit the stage in Arkansas Sunday night to give his stump speech in Clinton Country, Lisa Tripp waved a homemade sign that said “Arkansas For Rubio.”
“I believe he is the best representation for us in Washington,” Tripp said. “He’s young, fresh, and has a vision. He reminds me of Reagan.”
She’s not just saying that for show. She is a Rubio loyalist. She’s read his book and studied all the candidates. Her sister, who did not attend the rally with her, is a Trump supporter.
“Trump scares me,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of soul searching during this campaign. I love his [Rubio’s] family’s story about Cuba. He’s risen from humble beginnings and that strikes a chord with the American people.”
While the real estate mogul was nowhere near Little Rock, he cast a golden shadow over the Rubio rally here. Supporters of the senator from Florida openly worried about Trump’s effect on the race, and held out hope that Rubio was the one who could save them from the billionaire.
In Arkansas, like in other parts of the country, Trump has lit a fire under many voters, especially in rural areas, who are disgusted by Washington and its establishment. In addition, this is the first time that Arkansas has been a real player in the primary process—voting on March 1 as a part of the so-called SEC primary. Prior to this year, the state held its primary in May.
Additionally, Trump and Rubio are in a virtual tie in the state, according to one poll. That poll, taken earlier this month, showed Trump and Rubio each with 23 percent and Cruz, 27 percent. After South Carolina with Jeb Bush dropping out of the race, some Rubio supporters believe he can actually win Arkansas.
Rubio’s first Arkansas stop was sandwiched between an earlier event in Tennessee that 4,000 people attended, and a later stop in Nevada, which holds its GOP caucus on Tuesday.
For Arkansas voters, this was the first time they had seen Rubio. Trump visited the state earlier this month and Cruz visited twice last year.
About 2,000 people turned out for Rubio’s event at the Statehouse Convention Center, where a large collage of beloved native son Bill Clinton hangs in the foyer and is within eyeshot of Clinton’s presidential library.
In recent weeks, Rubio has gained the endorsement of 30 state legislators and Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, a former congressman and veteran of the George W. Bush White House. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has yet to endorse a candidate.
Griffin said Rubio has what it takes to garner the Republican nomination even if Trump continues to rack up primary wins and delegates. He’s the party’s best candidate to take down Hillary Clinton.
“Senator Rubio represents the future of the Republican Party and the country and is in contrast to the failed old Democratic policies of Hillary Clinton,” Griffin says. “I think this primary is wide open now and Rubio will have plenty of money and he appeals to many, many people in our party and outside the party.”
Many who attended the rally really hope Griffin is right because the specter of a possible Trump nomination looms.
Seth Flynt of Sherwood held up an “Anyone But Trump” sign throughout Rubio’s speech. Flynt said he is genuinely concerned about Trump winning it all.
“I’m for any of the candidates who are a true Republican,” Flynt said. “I’m a Carson supporter but I like Marco a lot. I’m not for someone who has recently become a conservative in the last year or two.”
In 2012, Flynt supported Ron Paul. He said his choices this year are Carson, John Kasich, and then Rubio.
“Cruz is a snake,” Flynt said. “Trump cannot win.”
Then there is the Hillary factor and who can challenge her in November if she is the Democratic nominee. Griffin thinks that Rubio, almost channeling a Reagan “Morning in America” vibe, is the answer.
Rubio offered his standard lines about Obamacare, a strong military, and the Second Amendment, but he particularly hit hard at Hillary Clinton in his 40-minute speech.
“She used to have a house here,” Rubio said to loud boos. “She’s not qualified to be president.”
Rubio then attacked Clinton about the FBI investigation into her personal email server containing classified information as secretary of state. Clinton “thinks she’s above the law,” he said, and she lied to families of four Americans who were killed in the 2012 Benghazi attack. The crowd cheered.
Many of these people were never Clinton supporters. Most gravitated toward the other son from Hope, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
But others like Mary Logan Thomas, a 23-year-old first-time presidential primary voter from Little Rock, is new to the political process and held a copy of Rubio’s paperback book, signed by the candidate.
“I was undecided until today,” Thomas said. “I went to the Donald Trump speech, but no. I don’t think I want him for president. Rubio’s speech was moving and I feel like he really wants to be president because he loves America and he’s genuine about it.”
While Trump taps an anger flowing through America about politics, presidential elections, Griffin said, ultimately come down to the future versus the past, especially with millennial voters like Thomas. Candidates with an inspiring, inclusive message win, he said.
“I think more evangelicals are lining up behind Rubio,” Griffin said. “I think Jeb Bush leaving the race is a major boost for Rubio. Rubio’s stock is rising.”