As Marco Rubio walked to the stage in Wichita on Friday, the Shockers’ first game in Arch Madness was entering a critical final two minutes.
“This is going to be hard: I’m competing against the last minute of the basketball game,” he said, laughing.
While a few heads craned toward a couple of TVs broadcasting the Wichita State game, the Republican presidential candidate laid out the case for his campaign to about 1,000 people in a Jabara Airport hangar on the eve of the Kansas caucus.
“Our children will either be the freest, most prosperous Americans ever or we are going to be the first Americans that leave their kids worse off than themselves,” said Rubio, a senator from Florida.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
“We are going to undo the damage that Barack Obama has done to the United States,” Rubio said to a cheering, heavily conservative crowd.
It was the first campaign visit to Wichita by a 2016 presidential candidate. Republican candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are expected to speak at the caucus at Century II on Saturday morning.
Appeals to national security
Rubio said he would rebuild the U.S. military and wage a “real war on terror.”
He called himself the most knowledgeable and experienced candidate on national security and foreign policy issues.
“If that wasn’t true, Congressman Pompeo would never have endorsed me,” he said.
Kansas Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo stumped for Rubio. “I’ve watched his judgment,” he said. “I’ve watched how smart he was, how capable he was of understanding complex problems.”
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, the first female Hispanic governor in the nation, contended that Rubio would perform well in a general election.
“Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to have anything to do with Marco Rubio,” she said.
Rubio voiced opposition to plans that would house any terrorist suspects at Fort Leavenworth or other places in the United States.
“They’re not coming to Kansas; they’re going to Guantanamo where they belong,” he said to loud applause.
Rubio supporter Sharon Meckenstock, 69, said she’s most excited about his foreign policy priorities.
“We have to take a firm stance against ISIS and I think he knows enough about what’s going on in the world that he’s a man that can make it happen,” Meckenstock said.
Addressing Trump’s rise
Rubio took some thinly veiled shots at Trump, the Republican frontrunner.
“I didn’t just start pretending to be a conservative a year and a half ago,” Rubio said. “Unlike Mr. Trump, my campaign has not been built on personal insults.”
But he also tried to address the sentiments that have led to Trump’s rise in the polls and several victories in key early voting states.
“You have a right to be angry and you have a right to be frustrated,” Rubio said. “But that’s not going to solve the problem.”
“Anger and fear is not a plan. It’s a feeling,” he said. “You can use it to motivate you to take action, but it by itself will not solve problems.”
Rubio also tried to appeal to those who like Trump for his outspokenness.
“This election can’t be about making a point. It has to be about making a difference. We have to win.”
Several voters said they were leaning away from supporting Trump while still weighing whom to support on Saturday.
“With Trump, it just seems like a lot of talk and no substance,” said Andrew Twesme, a 24-year-old WSU student deciding between Cruz and Rubio before the rally. “I don’t see how he’s going to do all the stuff he’s going to do.”
The rally came after a GOP debate in Detroit on Thursday night.
Peter Ronsse, a retiree who has a cow farm in central Kansas, criticized Rubio’s debate performance but said he was impressed after hearing him speak in person.
“I think he got suckered into this attack mode and I think it has brought down his stature,” he said. “But the guy is a leader, and he has a record to support his claims.”
Former Wichita Mayor Carlos Mayans, a Cuban immigrant, said he supports Rubio largely because, as the son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio has a more realistic view of immigration than his rivals, especially Trump.
“I don’t think you can build a wall long enough or high enough to stop people coming here,” Mayans said. “We need to understand people come to this country for opportunity, not for handouts. Rather than build walls of division, we need to build bridges of friendship.”
State Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said he originally supported Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina for president. But he said he switched after Fiorina dropped out, and he praised Rubio’s charisma and upbeat attitude.
“Aside from (former Texas Gov.) Rick Perry, he’s the most Reaganesque candidate I’ve seen in a long time,” Whitmer said.
Rubio also stopped in Topeka and Overland Park on Friday.