DAVENPORT, IOWA — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was apparently watching as his rival Marco Rubio addressed voters at a town hall in eastern Iowa Thursday night. “Just watched [Rubio] on television,” he tweeted after the event ended. “Just another all talk, no action, politician.”
It may not have seemed like much, but the tweet was a clear attempt to paint Rubio as an “establishment” candidate — the opposite of what voters seem to be looking for this presidential election. This has been the season of the “anti-establishment” politician, the year when “outsiders” like Trump and Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are the leading Republican candidates for the highest public office in America. But at almost the exact same time Trump deemed Rubio a political insider, Rubio was trying to convince Iowa voters that he is, in fact, the anti-establishment candidate they are looking for.
The moment came in response to a question from an audience member concerned about how to convince his friends that Rubio is “outsidery” enough. “There are those that I’ve talked [to] that say, he’s an establishment candidate,” the man asked. “How can you attract those people who now are looking towards the people who are not establishment?”
To make his case, said that though he’s a sitting Senator, he’s long been opposed by the Republican establishment. He harkened back to his run for Senate in 2010, when he ran against former Democratic Gov. Charlie Crist.
“There’s no doubt I was elected four years ago to the United States Senate,” he said. “But the establishment actively tried to undermine my candidacy for Senate, and the establishment is not supporting me for president now.”
Though Rubio may not be as embedded in the political establishment as, say, Jeb Bush, his career in politics spans back to 1998, when he was first elected to the West Miami City Commission before spending nearly a decade in the Florida House of Representatives. And Rubio has also received an early nod from the elite Koch Brothers, conservative billionaire donors who are well-connected to the political establishment.
But in campaign events across the country, Rubio has often tried to paint himself as an outsider with this claim that during the 2010 race, “establishment” figures told him that it wasn’t “his turn” to run for Senate. The same thing, he often says, is happening now.
“The truth of the matter is when I decided to run for the presidency, all of the same people that told me not to run for the Senate came out of the woodwork again and said it’s not your turn,” he said on Thursday. “You haven’t been around long enough. We’re all going to line up behind somebody else.”
Now, however, the characterization seems to be becoming more important. Rubio has been surging in national and state polls, but is not quite yet caught up to the ranks of outsiders Trump and Carson. And when asked by ThinkProgress after the event, most attendees said that the so-called “anti-establishment” factor is extremely important for winning their vote.
“It’s very important to me,” said Carl Miller, 17, who travelled from Chicago to attend the event. Miller said he primarily supports U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who he called “the ultimate outsider.”
Did Rubio make the case for him? “Absolutely,” Miller said. “He’s a first-term Senator. He has not been in Congress for, say, like my Senator Dick Durbin who has been in Congress 32 years. I don’t think the framers intended for career politicians, and he’s not a career politician.”
Rubio also won praise from Iowans at the events for his pronouncement that he won’t run for re-election to the U.S. Senate while he also runs for president, even if he eventually drops out of the race.
“How many people are telling you that I’m not going to run again, that I believe in term limits?” said Geoff Polzin, a Republican from Donahue. “No. They want a career. That’s why he’s an outsider.”
For others, Rubio’s outsider cred comes from his parents’ status as immigrants, and his Catholic background, both of which he frequently touted on Thursday.
“I don’t think of him as the establishment candidate,” said Denise Forsyth, a registered independent and Davenport resident. “He’s from an immigrant family. He’s Catholic, and he states it up front. And when was the last time we had a Catholic in office?”
Now, Rubio is tangling with the ultimate outsider — front-runner Trump. In a radio interview on Thursday, Rubio called Trump “a very touchy and insecure guy” who gets sensitive and attacks people when he’s threatened. And for some Iowa voters, personality may be more important.
“Establishment is the least of my worries,” Polzin said. “I care about the person.”