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Rubio Steps Up Presidential Campaign In New Hampshire


We are in a classic pattern of presidential campaigns. In a crowded field, a candidate rises in polling. And that prompts opponents as well as the media to take a sharper look at the candidate's record.


This may be Senator Marco Rubio's campaign moment. He is not leading Republican surveys. The top spot still belongs to Ben Carson and Donald Trump. But he has emerged as one of the strongest candidates with conventional political experience.

INSKEEP: Senator Rubio of Florida is often ahead of Jeb Bush, his fellow Floridian who was once seen as the favorite of party leaders. Rubio has been planning for a gradual rise. And he is now campaigning in New Hampshire, where he had been taking a low-key approach but where the primary is now just over three months away. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Manchester.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Marco Rubio is using the buzz his campaign has been attracting since the last debate to reintroduce himself to voters in New Hampshire. He highlights his belief that, at 44 years of age, he sees the world differently than older candidates.


MARCO RUBIO: This election is not a choice simply between Republicans and Democrats. This election is a generational choice about what kind of country will America be in the 21st century. That's what we're being asked to choose.

GONYEA: That's from a town hall event at a college in Nashua last night. Rubio said American businesses need relief from too many federal regulations. He said the federal debt is a product of Democratic and Republican policies. But he gets his biggest cheers with this line.


RUBIO: One more thing we need to reinvigorate our economy - get ready to clap...


RUBIO: Is repeal and replaced Obamacare.


RUBIO: It always works - works every time.

GONYEA: At an event with young professionals in Manchester, Rubio was happy to entertain questions in the category of getting to know you. He said his bucket list includes visiting a Cuba free of communism and seeing his Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl. And he talked "Star Wars."


RUBIO: I used to hate Darth Vader. And now I kind of feel a little bit sorry for him 'cause I know what he went through to get to that point. And it's probably the most fascinating character in the whole movie 'cause he started out as this individual with a tremendous amount of talent and promise. Then something went wrong; something really went bad. He went dark and went nasty.

GONYEA: Rubio still trails Donald Trump and Ben Carson in New Hampshire polls. But he's moved up to third place, which explains why he's been getting a lot of attention from Trump, who was in the state yesterday handing in petitions to officially get his name on the February primary ballot.


DONALD TRUMP: Come on up here, everybody. Come on.

GONYEA: Trump held an outdoor news conference. And he went after Rubio about Rubio's use of a Republican Party credit card while he was speaker of the Florida House of Representatives last decade.


TRUMP: He has a disaster on his credit cards. When you check his credit cards, take a look at what he's done with the Republican Party when he had access, what he had to put back in.

GONYEA: Rubio downplays the controversy. He says personal expenses put on the card were reimbursed, and he's pledged to release those records in the coming weeks. Still, he's been making a positive impression in New Hampshire. Sixty-year-old Gail Miserandino was at the Nashua Town hall. She's an independent voter who didn't know much at all about Rubio before the event.

GAIL MISERANDINO: I liked him. I liked him a little better than when we came in. I like a lot of his ideas. I don't know how he's going to get them done and accomplished, but...

GONYEA: But now she puts Rubio on her list of favorites, which also includes Ben Carson and Chris Christie. Sixty-four-year-old Jane Caira also gave Rubio high marks. But she, too, remains undecided.

JANE CAIRA: I'm trying to narrow it down, and he's certainly one of my finalists.

GONYEA: When you say finalists, how big is that group?

CAIRA: Probably only three or four. Ben Carson is in it right now. I like Carly.

GONYEA: That's Carly Fiorina. And there's Ted Cruz.

CAIRA: Cruz is, you know, some days in some days out.

GONYEA: It's all evidence of how much more work Rubio and the rest of the field still need to do to win over New Hampshire voters, who are just now starting to narrow their options. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Manchester.

MONTAGNE: Senator Rubio has defended his use of a Republican Party card before. His sudden prominence is forcing him to do it again. And on ABC News, he said that while he used the American Express card for personal expenses, he ultimately paid off those charges himself. He added, I obviously don't come from a wealthy family. He's in a strong enough position that Democrats as well as Republicans are weighing in. An independent group backing Hillary Rodham Clinton is pushing Rubio to release the Amex statements. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.