Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016 | 11:48 p.m.
The warm welcome Florida Sen. Marco Rubio received Sunday evening at a rally in North Las Vegas wasn’t just coming from the boisterous crowd facing him.
It had just as much to do with the people standing next to him on stage — Sen. Dean Heller, Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison and Rep. Cresent Hardy, among others. The friendly faces represented the growing cadre of Nevada Republicans throwing their support behind Rubio ahead of Nevada’s GOP caucus on Tuesday.
“This is Marco country we are in today,” Heller told the crowd. “He is the real deal, and that’s what America needs.”
The evening rally at Texas Station capped off a whirlwind weekend for the Republican presidential candidate who once called Southern Nevada home. First, Rubio barely edged out Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for a second-place finish in South Carolina’s primary, behind Donald Trump. Then Jeb Bush bowed out of the race, narrowing the crowded GOP field. The latter led to a flurry of endorsements Sunday afternoon for Rubio, including from Heller, Rep. Mark Amodei, Nevada Assembly Majority Leader Paul Anderson and Nevada Sen. Becky Harris.
But it wasn’t just politicians stumping for Rubio. Actor Donnie Wahlberg and “Pawn Stars” star Rick Harrison helped welcome Rubio back to Las Vegas, adding their celebrity power to a rally that attracted a fair share of undecided conservatives.
Bush’s departure from the race left Flora Woratschek in limbo. The Henderson resident wants to caucus Tuesday but needs a new candidate to support.
“That’s why I’m here,” she said, before adding: “I’ve never changed so much than I have this election cycle.”
She was far from alone. Other rally attendees expressed just as much indecisiveness less than two days before the Republican caucusing begins in the Silver State. Las Vegas resident George Barber said he was still torn among the top three front-runners — Trump, Rubio and Cruz — and planned to attend rallies for each before Tuesday.
“That’s how I’m spending my birthday tomorrow,” said Barber, who will turn 54.
To capture those last-minute supporters, Rubio largely stuck to his narrative focused on limiting the expansion of the federal government, embracing free enterprise and strengthening the nation’s defense system. He called for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and vowed to embark on a “Reagan-style rebuild of the United States military” if elected president.
And playing into a hot-button issue out West, he briefly addressed federal lands: “Nowhere in the Constitution does it say the federal government should own 83 percent of the state of Nevada,” Rubio said, drawing raucous cheers.
What Rubio didn’t do: engage in attacks against his Republican opponents or address his immigration policy. Instead, he trumpeted his ability to repair the fractured GOP and win the November election, while reminding supporters of his Nevada roots. His Cuban-immigrant parents worked in industry jobs — his father as a bartender at Sam’s Town and his mother as a maid at Imperial Palace — when his family lived here for six years during his childhood.
“If you nominate me, we will unite this party and grow it,” he said. “This is the face of the new conservative movement.”
Getting to that point will be a tall order, though. A CNN/ORC poll released last week showed Trump leading by a wide margin in Nevada. Trump received 45 percent of support from likely caucusgoers, followed by Rubio with 19 percent and Cruz with 17 percent.
Rubio’s stump speech, however, was enough to sway Las Vegas resident Jonathan Christensen, who said afterward that he was “99 percent sure” the Florida senator would receive his support Tuesday.
“I came here being a pretty tough critic, but I would say he sold me,” Christensen said. “I definitely think he’s got the best of intentions for our country.”