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Sen. Marco Rubio Hones GOP Presidential Pitch In Iowa


Let's listen next to a presidential candidate seeking special status in the new year. Marco Rubio hopes to make himself the top choice of so-called establishment Republicans - those who hope to overcome the likes of Donald Trump. Rubio is challenging his fellow Floridian Jeb Bush for that establishment rule. NPR's Sarah McCammon spent yesterday with Rubio in Iowa.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: In the small town of Newton, Marco Rubio was joined by his family and a colleague from Congress. Trey Gowdy is best known for his role as chairman of the House Benghazi Committee. He set the tone for the event, defending Rubio's record on immigration. Gowdy said he's 100 percent confident Rubio understands the link between that issue and national security.


TREY GOWDY: You do not have a right to emigrate from another country to the United States. And sovereign countries have the right to determine who gets to come and how long you get to stay. And if you don't stay, we have the right - just like the uncle at Christmastime, we have the right to say, look, it's time to go.

MCCAMMON: Several Iowans who came to see Rubio said the endorsement from the South Carolina congressman doesn't have much bearing on their feelings. But it comes at a good time for Rubio, whose record on immigration is an area of vulnerability. The Florida senator has been attacked by rivals like Ted Cruz for his role in an attempt to pass an immigration plan that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In Newton, Rubio said he's concerned about the threat of terrorists infiltrating the U.S. through the immigration system.


MARCO RUBIO: The issue has changed, and so, too, must our approach. There was a time not long ago when people didn't lock their doors. Do any of you remember that - when people didn't used to lock their doors? They lock their doors now. Why? 'Cause the world has changed.

MCCAMMON: In a year when voters are flocking to candidates like Cruz and Donald Trump, Rubio is telling Iowa voters he also cares about immigration and border security. He's calling for 20,000 new border agents and stepped up enforcement at airports and seaports. Rubio's parents emigrated from Cuba, so he's making the case that he's in a unique position to talk about the issue. That's what he told a modest crowd in the Central Iowa town of Boone.


RUBIO: I am the son of immigrants. And as the son of immigrants, I know that enforcing our immigration laws is not anti-immigrant. It is what sovereign countries do.

MCCAMMON: Rubio is also aiming some of his rhetoric at evangelical voters, a key block among Iowa Republicans. In a single line that served as a multipronged attack on President Obama, he touched on a top priority for religious conservatives.

RUBIO: And our president, instead of fighting for more funding for our troops, keeps fighting for more funding for his pet programs, like Planned Parenthood.

MCCAMMON: For Steve Lawler (ph), a farmer from nearby Ogden, Rubio is hitting all the right notes. Lawler says he's still considering other Republican candidates, but he likes Rubio's take on national security and the federal budget. And he thinks Rubio could win the general election.

STEVE LAWLER: I see him as a very civil conservative. And I think he probably espouses some of the same views that Cruz and Trump do. But I think he does a better job at delivering the message and makes it more understandable to a wide range of voters on both sides of the aisle.

MCCAMMON: With just over a month before the Iowa caucuses, Rubio needs to first deliver an effective message to the Republican base. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.