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Politics & Government

GOP Presidential Candidates Speak At Sunshine Summit In Florida

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're going now to Florida, a sort of microcosm of the country - young, old, white, brown, conservative and liberal people all in one place. And right now, every major Republican presidential candidate is there, too, speaking at the state's GOP Sunshine Summit in Orlando. NPR's Asma Khalid reports the event is a chance to see which way the GOP momentum is going in perhaps one of the most important battleground states.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: At a resort near Disney World lined with palm trees, the presidential candidates made their political pitch to Floridians. And, in a nutshell, their message was that the GOP, as a party, is rich with choices, in stark contrast to the Democrats. The state's senator, Marco Rubio, took the stage first and told the story of his family's immigrant life, likening it to that of many in his home state.

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MARCO RUBIO: It's especially the story of Florida, a state where people have come from all over the place in search of a better life. Some came here fleeing socialism in Venezuela, some fleeing socialism in New York.

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KHALID: Rubio seems to be the shining star here these days after his debate performances.

JIM MOURNIGHAN: I mean, he has solid conservative principles, but also, he understands the reality of some of the situations we're facing, like with immigration and things like that, so...

KHALID: Jim Mournighan was here with his wife, Maria, who emigrated from Ecuador.

MOURNIGHAN: We want to win the White House in 2016, and Marco Rubio represents, like, our generation.

KHALID: Maria, who moved to Florida in 2002, says she doesn't know much about the other Floridian running for president, Jeb Bush. Her husband, Jim, chimes in.

MOURNIGHAN: Well, Jeb's arguments are more meaning, more logic. They're logical, and they're sound, but they're not inspiring.

KHALID: Florida is in an unusual situation this primary season with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Two local candidates who grew up in Florida politics are now competing for the presidency at the same time. And at the state party convention, activists like 68-year-old Marlou Zolkos say Rubio seems to have the edge, at least in her mind for now.

MARLOU ZOLKOS: I did like Bush as governor. Rubio, I think, is bringing a lot more energy to the picture right now.

KHALID: Nearby, I meet Gayle Harrell. She's a Florida state representative, and she knows Bush and Rubio personally.

GAYLE HARRELL: I think, right now, I'm feeling the momentum with Marco. He's doing so well in the debates.

KHALID: But she says she's not committed to any candidate yet, and she thinks Bush's campaign performance will get better.

HARRELL: Jeb is such a policy wonk that I think you're going to see a slow, steady building of Jeb.

KHALID: There's a sense of split loyalties among some of the establishment voters here at the convention. And that split is also felt by some conservative Latinos, like Peter Vivaldi. He says it's not just about a home-court advantage. He says it also helps that both Bush and Rubio speak Spanish and discuss immigration reform.

PETER VIVALDI: They both have reached out to the Hispanic community aggressively prior to running for president.

KHALID: But some folks here, like elsewhere in the country, are attracted to the outsider candidates. The Florida primary, though, isn't until March 15. And with a still crowded GOP field, there's plenty of time for things to change. Asma Khalid, NPR News, Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.