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Marco Rubio Stakes Presidential Ambitions In Home State Of Florida


Marco Rubio has staked his political reputation on winning the primary in his home state of Florida on Tuesday. It doesn't look like he has much of a home court advantage, though. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are aggressively courting voters right in Rubio's backyard, as NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Donald Trump's campaign seems to be everywhere in Florida. Just this morning, he had a one-hour press conference at his Mar-a-Lago Club, which ended this way.


DONALD TRUMP: Thank you all very much. Thank you very much, great honor. And go outside, we have coffee and drinks. Enjoy yourselves. Thank you.

KHALID: But the campaign has only two brick-and-mortar offices in the state. Richard DeNapoli is the former Broward County GOP chair, and now he helps the Trump campaign. He describes the effort on the ground as kind of ad hoc, run largely by volunteers.

RICHARD DENAPOLI: They hold these organizational meetings, usually at a restaurant that has a private room, something like that. So at that meeting, they have, like, a three-minute video that teaches you how to use the calling program where you can make calls from home.

KHALID: The volunteers then go home and make calls to voters - with a twist that reminds you of "The Apprentice." Here's DeNapoli again.

DENAPOLI: And then usually we do a contest for, you know, whoever the person in each county that does the most calls. Then they get a meeting with Donald Trump.

KHALID: So I decided to swing by one of these volunteer trainings to see what actually happens.

LINDA SCHAINBERG: We're not going to do the regular sign-waving. We're going to either do the ground game with flow. When are you going to start? This weekend? This Saturday.

KHALID: That's Linda Schainberg. She's wearing a Trump T-shirt with a matching Trump button. We're in a suburb of Miami at a wings joint.

SCHAINBERG: I try and hold a weekly event here to bring volunteers together to help Donald Trump win the presidency.

KHALID: About 20-odd Trump supporters are here discussing door-knocking and sign-waving. It's all traditional campaign strategy, with one exception. There's actually no staff here. It's an entirely volunteer force. But Trump does have staff in Florida. His campaign co-chair, Joe Gruters, says Trump made his first Florida hire back in October.

JOE GRUTERS: No other campaign's been on the ground because they've been focused on other states.

KHALID: Gruters says Trump has another advantage.

GRUTERS: This is his second home. He could be called a Floridian. He's attended local Republican events across the state for years.

KHALID: The people I talk with here tell me Marco Rubio has not been on the ground here as frequently and as early as he ought to have been. He's trying to make up for it now. His campaign tells me Rubio is not leaving Florida until the primary is done.


MARCO RUBIO: I need your help. We have to win here in Florida. It was always going to come down to Florida.

KHALID: The other day in Hialeah, the hugely Hispanic city near Miami, Marco Rubio was pleading with voters.


RUBIO: If everyone here votes and finds others that will vote for me, if those of you who haven't voted yet will leave here now and go a few blocks away and cast your early ballot, we are going to win this election.

KHALID: Rubio's got the support of many elected officials here, and his campaign is running a strong old-school ground game. At his local Miami office, people crowd into a room to make calls in English and Spanish, and that's where I meet Alex Burgos. He's an adviser with the Rubio campaign.

ALEX BURGOS: What we've been doing here is get out the vote calls, working the absentee ballots, encouraging people to go vote early. We want to make sure that there is a strong turnout throughout Florida but especially among the people that know him best here in South Florida.

KHALID: But Rubio has another obstacle - Ted Cruz. He's opened 10 campaign offices across the state, including one in Rubio's backyard, Miami. Cruz is not expected to win Florida, but he wants to ensure that Marco Rubio doesn't either. At a campaign rally in Miami this week, Cruz played up his Cuban roots and insisted he's the only viable alternative to Trump.


TED CRUZ: At this point, our campaign has beaten Donald Trump not once, not twice, not three times, but eight separate times.


KHALID: What happens in the next few days on the ground is important, but it's also limited. It's worth remembering early voting is incredibly popular in Florida. Already about a million Republicans have voted. Asma Khalid, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.

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