MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Marco Rubio wants to be your second choice for president.
It’s an unusual admission for a candidate, but one Rubio is making openly as he works to unite the anti-Donald Trump vote behind him.
With only five candidates left in the Republican primary and time running out to halt Trump’s march toward the nomination, Rubio’s making the case to Republican voters that, even if he’s not their favorite, he’s their best chance to win.
“I wasn’t the first choice, and in the case of some of these folks, I wasn’t the second choice. Many of them didn’t want me to run…but now they are realizing that this is what the race is, these are the finalists and they made the choice that they think is best,” he told reporters Tuesday morning in Las Vegas before boarding a flight to Minneapolis.
He made the same case on the stump in Las Vegas, telling the crowd that voters are realizing, “he wasn’t our first choice but now he’s our best choice.”
And in Minneapolis, Minn., Rubio framed his second-choice standing as a good thing: The fact he’s picked up endorsements set free by candidates who dropped out shows he can unite the party, he said.
“I can unite this party — you’re already seeing that it’s happening. As candidates drop out people join our team,” he said.
And he argued that party unity would be key to defeating the Democrats come November.
“If we’re still angry and fighting and bickering and a third of our voters are saying I’m not voting cause I don’t like the guy or gal who won, we lose. We have to come together,” Rubio said in Minnesota.
The 1,700-strong crowd was fired up for Rubio, frequently shouting out affirmations to the candidate, and he seemed to be enjoying himself.
Though he delivered his standard stump speech, focusing on electability and defeating Hillary Clinton, he frequently departed from his prepared remarks to make unscripted jokes or chat with people in the crowd. At one point, after meandering off-topic, Rubio remarked on the “rowdy crowd” and had to herd the audience and himself back onto the issue at hand.
It was the second stop of Rubio’s three-state tour on Tuesday, which began in Nevada, hours before voters make their pick in the state’s caucuses.
His team has high hopes for his chances there, as the campaign has been investing resources in their Nevada ground game for months and he has a sentimental attachment to the state after spending six years of his childhood there.
Rubio has been highlighting those formative years, when his father was a bartender in Las Vegas, on the stump as he barnstormed the state in the day and a half before the caucuses.
But he and his team have adamantly refused to predict an outcome to the caucuses, with polling showing Trump holding a significant lead and the caucus format notoriously hard to evaluate.
On Tuesday morning, he brushed off questions about the viability of his campaign if he doesn’t win in Nevada, noting that Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, currently vying with Rubio to take on Trump, have both campaigned in the state this past week.
“You have a hard-core majority of Republicans that do not want Donald Trump as the nominee, and as long as they are being divided up among three or four people, it’s good for Donald. But that’s not gonna continue,” he said.
Though the GOP establishment is rapidly coalescing behind Rubio since Jeb Bush’s exit from the race, doubts remain about his candidacy because he hasn’t yet won a primary state, and won’t commit to winning any in the near future.
Rubio has repeatedly insisted that where he finishes in the final vote doesn’t matter as much as the delegates he’s racking up, and his campaign has been planning for a drawn-out primary fight, likely through April or beyond.
His Tuesday schedule was the latest example of the long game Rubio’s playing — he had rallies planned in Minneapolis, Minn. and Grand Rapids, Mich., in addition to the Las Vegas rally, before heading to Houston, Texas on Wednesday.
The hectic campaign schedule was clearly impacting the senator, though he handled it with a smile — he joked three times about forgetting the day or location he was in, and at one point did seem to forget, thanking Michigan instead of Minnesota.
Though he’s made the case he’ll continue to grow his support as other candidates drop out — hence his satisfaction with being the second-place pick of GOP voters — he declined Tuesday to call outright for that to happen.
“I think voters are going to take care of that,” he told reporters when asked if other candidates should exit the race. “No one drops out because people asked them to — you drop out because they realize there’s not a path forward. And the closer we get to that moment, the better off we’re gonna be.”