Before Florida senator and GOP presidential hopeful Marco Rubio appeared before hundreds of voters at a North Charleston town hall Monday night, he made a quiet trip downtown to visit Emanuel AME Church, where nine parishioners were murdered June 17.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., asked Rubio to talk about the visit during the end of their presidential town hall, which drew more than 500 people. Scott said he was moved by Rubio’s visit, which took place away from the media.
“The president is not just the leader of our government. He is also the leader of our people,” Rubio said. “We do have challenges, and I understand people are angry... While we have a right to be angry and while we should use that anger to act, we should not ever use that anger to define us as a nation or as a people.”
Rubio said one of the great stories from Charleston is the aftermath of the tragedy, in which surviving families forgave the suspect almost immediately. “I want you to understand the impact that had on our country,” he said, adding it was a true display of faith.
Before the event, Rubio met with reporters and made it clear that the Emanuel tragedy and similar shootings have not made him more interested in gun control legislation.
“It’s important to remember those tragedies were the result of an individual, not a weapon, a person who made a decision to kill people. Gun laws are only followed by law-abiding people.”
During the town hall event, it was Rubio’s responses to foreign policy questions that drew the biggest applause. Most of the crowd gave him a standing ovation when he pledged, if elected, to reimpose the sanctions on Iran on his first day in office — sanctions that President Barack Obama plans to ease in return for that country taking steps not to pursue nuclear weapons.
“And then I will ask Congress to increase them, and I will back it up by the credible threat of military force,” Rubio added. “This agreement is not a treaty. It’s not binding on the next administration.”
He also got rousing applause when he discussed how he would try to defeat ISIS.
“ISIS is growing today because they’ve convinced young people around the world that they’re invincible. We have to prove that they’re not,” he said. “I believe in the short term, we need high profile, special operations attacks on them that capture their leaders, video the whole thing and post it on Facebook and Twitter.”
Rubio is among the first Republican presidential hopefuls to appear at one of Scott’s town hall events in the run-up to South Carolina’s first-in-the-South GOP primary next year.
Scott and Rubio were joined on stage by U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who alternated asking the Florida senators questions previously submitted by Lowcountry voters.
The questions all stuck to policy — none of his fellow Republican challengers were mentioned, not even controversial frontrunner Donald Trump.
Rubio talked about his background, including his father’s journey from Cuba to a bartending job in Florida to raising four children. “That journey from behind that bar to where I stand here tonight is the essence of the American dream,” he said. “And that’s not just my story. That’s your story.”
Rubio was among the group of Republican senators who previously backed a comprehensive immigration reform, but Rubio said Monday the problem won’t ever be solved by “a massive comprehensive approach.”
He said the country first must secure its borders so fewer get here illegally, then it must modernize its legal immigration system and then it can deal with the approximately 11 million here illegally. “But that’s not even going to be able to be up for discussion until you do the other two things first,” he said.
And, regarding Social Security and Medicare, he said, “If we act now, we can save Medicare and Social Security, balance our budget ... and not change for anyone 55 years old or older,” he said. “It’s going to look different for me and future generations behind me. By the way, it’s going to look different either way. It’s either not going to exist or we reform it.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.