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Marco Rubio Faces a Must-Win in Florida Primary

Polls show the Florida senator trailing front-runner Donald Trump in his home state

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    U.S. Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida speaks to supporters on March 12, 2016, in Pensacola, Florida. On the eve of the Florida primary, Rubio finds himself trailing in his home state.

    Ahead of the next round of primaries on Tuesday, with the Republican presidential race in turmoil over the violence that has erupted at Donald Trump's rallies, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is doing all he can to try to squeeze out a victory in his home state.

    As Florida and Ohio go to the polls, Rubio's campaign is urging his supporters in Ohio to back Gov. John Kasich there on Tuesday in the hope that Kasich’s supporters will return the favor in Florida. The appeal mirrors a proposal from 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney to try to halt Trump as the New York businessman barrels toward the Republican nomination.

    But the latest effort may be too late for Rubio, who is facing criticism for trying too soon for the presidency and running a lackluster campaign as a result. He trails the Republican front-runner in Florida by 21 percentage points in a NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released Sunday, with 22 percent of likely Republican voters supporting Rubio to 43 percent for Trump. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas follows Rubio at 21 percent and Kasich trails at 9 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points. 

    On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, the Ohio governor deferred a question about whether he would ask his supporters to vote for Rubio in Florida.

    "My voters are not like robots where I can say, 'Go do something,' okay," Kasich said. "How do you run for office and tell people to vote for somebody else?"

    Cruz meanwhile has made it clear that he wants a two-man race against Trump -- who could make an argument for being at least a part-time Florida resident at his private club at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach -- and hopes to force Rubio out with a loss in Florida. Other polls show Rubio behind 6 to 19 percentage points there.

    “Right now this is Donald Trump’s to lose,” said Mark Weaver, a longtime Republican consultant based in Ohio. “It’s hard to see the momentum stopping.”

    Weaver predicted a narrow win for Kasich in Ohio and a loss for Rubio to Trump in Florida. In both states, the Republican winner takes all of the delegates — 99 in Florida, 66 in Ohio.

    “And I bet you it’s not enough to derail the Trump train,” Weaver said.

    Four other contests will be held on Tuesday: primaries in Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina and a Republican caucus in the Northern Mariana Islands. For Republicans, Florida and Ohio stand out as a last chance for their favorite sons and for their winner-take-all rules. But Illinois and Missouri together will allocate 121 delegates by congressional district, and North Carolina has 72 delegates to be distributed on a proportionate basis.

    Kasich has a 6-point lead over Trump in Ohio, but Trump is ahead in Illinois, according to NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls done there. In Florida and in Illinois, Trump is favored among most key demographic groups except for likely voters who describe themselves as very conservative. Among that group, Cruz has the advantage.

    “For those who thought March 15 was going to be the end of the confusion, we’re going to know a lot more but the show will gone,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion.

    Among the Democrats, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leads Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Florida, Ohio and Illinois, according to the polls.

    Rubio has won only three contests: Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and Minnesota. Going into Tuesday's vote, Trump had 460 delegates to 370 for Cruz, 163 for Rubio and 63 for Kasich. To win the Republican nomination, a candidate needs 1,237 delegates.

    Rubio told his supporters in Florida over the weekend that Trump -- whose rallies have gotten violent -- would fracture the party if he became the party's nominee. Rubio has been saying he doubts the polls that show him trailing Trump.

    “There’s a majority of Florida Republicans who do not want Trump to win or be the nominee,” he said on CNN.

    In a sign of how dissatisfied Florida's top Republicans are, Politico Florida reported that a group of the state’s GOP donors and strategists has been trying persuade former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to run independently for president. A memo that the website obtained noted Rice was reluctant to make a bid.

    April Schiff, a Tampa-based Republican consultant and strategist who is not yet supporting a candidate, said Rubio should have remained in the Senate for a few more terms before running for president. At 44, he had plenty of time, she said. As it is, he has angered supporters who worked hard to get him elected to the Senate and who think he did little once he got there, she said. What he did try to do — a failed effort at immigration reform with a group of senators who became known as the Gang of Eight — alienated others.

    The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio shot up through the political ranks and in 2006 became the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House while Jeb Bush was governor. Bush's camp was surprised when Rubio decided to compete for the nomination and, though Bush has suspended his campaign, some of the former governor's loyalists continue to see Rubio as an opportunist. Some even talk about writing in Bush's name on the ballot.

    If Rubio loses Florida, he will be a particularly bad position politically, Schiff said. He has time to run again for his Senate seat or he could compete for the state’s governor race in two years, but she doubted he would be successful at either.

    “He could very well have destroyed his political career by doing what he’s doing today and that’s kind of disappointing because he was basically a rising star,” Schiff said.