Rubio makes appeal to S.C. voters

Tyler Merritts, 8, of Florence, S.C., left in red bow tie, watches as Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., takes pictures with supporter during a town hall meeting at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., Monday Feb. 15, 2016. Merritts' mother was in the audience and says that while she is still undecided that her son is definitely a Rubio fan. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

GILBERT — U.S. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio traversed three geographic and conservative ideological regions Monday to rally support for his message of unity amid the divisive GOP presidential field.

Rubio continues to tell hundreds that unity is required not just to attract new, diverse voters to the party but to defeat Democrats in November.

“They don’t have an African-American tax or a Hispanic-American tax, they have a tax and everyone has to pay the higher tax when the economy isn’t doing well,” Rubio said. “We cannot fulfill our destiny if a significant percentage of our population feels as if it’s being left behind.”

The response was to a question from conservative Robert Baker, an African-American man who asked how Rubio would bring more of the black community into the Republican Party.

“The Republican Party is remiss on addressing some of the issues that affect African-Americans,” like police profiling, Baker said. “Republicans traditionally have been very slow about addressing that and that has quite frankly helped reinforce the stereotype.”

School choice, criminal sentencing changes and connecting with immigrants, people like Rubio’s own parents, are key to growing his party, Rubio added.

Baker was one of about six African-Americans among a crowd of more than 300 people in Rock Hill. The Upstate region has a higher white population compared with Lexington and Florence counties, which Rubio also visited Monday.

U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who represents a swath of those areas, said such important outreach is why he backed U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who ended his presidential bid this month.

“Rand did the best job doing that of any Republican, going out and talking to people we’re not comfortable talking to,” Mulvaney said. “We have to start winning some elections, but we have to do it without pandering to people and without changing what it means to be a conservative.”

Mulvaney said he’s listening to all the candidates as he decides who to vote for on Saturday.

He doesn’t believe endorsements make much of a difference, but disabled Vietnam veteran David Stamm said that when U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy endorsed Rubio, he did the same.

“National defense is the most important thing, he’s so knowledgeable and detailed, you can’t fake that,” Stamm said. “He’s not all blustery, he has a plan.”

Rubio is working to chip away at the leads of poll leaders Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz while staving off a rising Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Dr. Ben Carson — all polling behind him, on average. But those challenges weren’t on display at his relaxed town halls.

“Even if I was your third choice coming in,” Rubio jokingly alluding to previous a questioner. “This is an election where we have to win. I will hold up my conservative record against anyone left in this race.”