INDEPENDENCE, OHIO — It makes sense that, a day after GOP delegates nominated Donald Trump for president, a self-proclaimed political outsider would make a point of attending the Republican National Convention — while the GOP incumbent he’s running against conspicuously stayed home.
That was the situation Carlos Beruff found himself in Wednesday morning, when he arrived at the Florida delegation’s hotel (about 20 miles south of Cleveland). The wealthy home-builder is taking on Sen. Marco Rubio in the state’s Republican primary, and he was eager to press his case to delegates that — despite what polls say — he really can defeat the sitting senator.
Trump’s nomination hasn’t entirely flipped the rules. In interviews with the Florida delegation and during speeches before Wednesday’s breakfast, it was clear that most in attendance preferred the incumbent and didn’t know all that much about his challenger.
But the role-reversal was notable — and now a political issue in its own right. Rubio is skipping the RNC. Instead he sent a taped video speech that played during the convention’s primetime programming.
To the unabashedly pro-Trump Beruff, that’s all the more reason Republicans shouldn’t send Rubio back to Washington.
“He doesn’t know what he wants to be,” Beruff said during an interview. “Does he really endorse our nominee or is he playing it safe? … I’m not like that. I either go all in or all out.
“And I’m all in,” he added. “There’s a difference.”
A Rubio spokeswoman pointed to Beruff’s support for Charlie Christ, the former Florida Republican governor who became an independent to run against Rubio in 2010. He is now a Democrat.
“These attacks are exactly what you’d expect from someone who contributed to Charlie Crist more than 30 times and even stood by him when he left the GOP,” said spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas. “As Marco said in his address to the Republican Convention, now is the time for conservatives to unite. Grassroots conservatives across Florida are supporting Marco because of his strong conservative record.”
Beruff surprised many Republicans earlier this summer when he stayed in the Florida GOP Senate primary despite Rubio’s sudden decision to seek re-election. The longtime major GOP donor even promised to spend more than $10 million to defeat an opponent he criticized as a career politician and part of the broken Washington establishment.
But his bid might be more no-shot than long-shot: Polls of the race have shown him trailing by more than 50 points against an opponent who, despite a damaging failed run for the presidency, remains a rock star among many Florida Republicans.
If numbers like those had deterred Beruff, he didn’t show it Wednesday. The personable Miami native glad-handed delegates and answered reporters’ questions in the hotel lobby like a veteran politician, despite the fact he has never held elected office. The candidate didn’t attract a big crowd of delegates, but he would talk to two or three at a time as he inconspicuously made his way around the room, a single aide in tow.
When Rudy Giuliani arrived, the two men briefly chatted as the former New York City mayor walked into a banquet room to deliver a speech to the Florida delegation. Beruff later recounted how they had first met, when the two men were both in Times Square on New Year’s Day in 2000 to take in the massive clean-up effort.
“It was like New Orleans after Mardi Gras,” said Beruff, who added that he and Giuliani have talked several times since. Florida’s primary is Aug. 30, with early voting underway even before then. But the Senate challenger isn’t exactly campaigning at a frantic pace in Cleveland.
Tuesday night, he visited the Florida delegation on the convention floor during the roll-call vote to nominate Trump. He spent about 20 minutes on the floor, he said, soaking in a convention that he has twice participated in as a delegate.
On Wednesday, Beruff sat down at a table marked “VIP” to listen to Giuliani and one-time President Bill Clinton aide Dick Morris give speeches that, combined, lasted about 90 minutes.
“Life is good,” he said, when asked how his race was going. “At the end of the day, people seem to like what we have to say.”
Beruff said his campaign hasn’t polled the race since the beginning of July. Asked if he still thinks he can win, he cited how much better-known Rubio is.
“The key is the name recognition that Mr. Rubio has that I have to overcome,” he said. “In 40 days, we’ll know.”
Rubio wasn’t forgotten Wednesday despite staying in Florida. While Beruff listened, Giuliani and Morris both praised the first-term senator as a dogged opponent of the Obama administration who had handled well the stinging blow of losing a presidential race.
“He’s a man who has shown he can overcome some of the hurt and pain of losing,” said Giuliani.
The reception to Beruff was by no means hostile — even delegates who said he had no chance to win would praise him as a nice man trying to make a difference.
But among top party officials, praise for the two candidates was not evenly distributed.
Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Florida GOP, excused Rubio’s absence, saying that he entered the Senate race so late that he needs to spend every spare day on the campaign trail. The incumbent senator had acted patriotically to return to the Senate race, the chairman argued, and was intent on winning re-election.
“Marco Rubio is here in spirit,” Ingoglia said.
Ingoglia added that he hadn’t noticed Beruff listening to the morning’s speeches, though he didn’t object to his presence at the delegation.
“Well, obviously there’s a primary, and he’s campaigning,” the chairman said.
Beruff isn’t the only Republican challenger to a sitting GOP senator to show up at the convention: Kelli Ward, the former senator in the Arizona legislature, also made it to Cleveland while Sen. John McCain stayed away. Like Beruff, she has argued that Trump’s success in the Republican presidential primary helps the cause of another insurgent candidacy like hers.
Trump, in fact, is the reason Beruff said he attended the RNC in the first place.
“I’m here to support the nominee,” Beruff said. “I’m just the side-show.”