THE VILLAGES, Fla. (AP) — What Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio said when he visited The Villages on Monday matters as much as the fact that he showed up at all.
Republicans in the sprawling Central Florida retirement community outnumber Democrats 2 to 1, and residents here vote in droves. A stop amid its ubiquitous golf carts and perfectly manicured lawns is mandatory for any Republican who wants to be president, and other hopefuls — Mitt Romney in 2012, and Jeb Bush this year — have showered attention on the upscale community of 60,000 voters, most of whom are white.
For Rubio, a familiar face to many for his nearly five years representing Florida in the Senate, hundreds of residents showed up, filling the hall where he spoke and two overflow rooms for his speech on familiar campaign themes. He said higher education is long overdue for an overhaul and that the U.S. military forces must be strengthened to raise America's standing in a dangerous world.
On higher education, Rubio said the nation's traditional colleges and universities need to be "modernized" to help students compete in a global economy. He said schools should be required to tell students how much they can expect to spend on a degree and be told of their job prospects with that degree.
"What matters is what you learned_not where you learned it," said Rubio.
He also talked about creating alternatives to higher education by expanding vocational training. "A welder can make more than a Greek philosopher," he said.
Rubio got a loud round of applause and a standing ovation when he talked about the need to bolster American military might.
"The world still needs a strong America," he said. "There is nothing to replace us."
He said America's enemies around the world include a "lunatic" in North Korea in Kim Jong Un and a "gangster" in Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said the Islamic State group and Iran also threaten U.S. national security.
The friendly audience at The Villages is part of Rubio's drive to keep climbing in the polls and show that he can pack his events. The timing is critical: In national polls, Rubio is climbing in popularity but remains behind GOP front-runner Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson and Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. One Florida poll, released last week, puts him ahead of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, but trailing Trump.
Mike Fleming, 60, who is originally from Michigan and retired to The Villages a year ago, supports Rubio because he sees him as "an outsider" who "is the kind of change we need in Washington."
Others like Rubio in part because he is not Trump.
According to Charlie Weill, 65, Rubio knows the federal government's role is "to protect the country" and to "get out of the way" of the economy.
Weill, who is undecided about whom to support in the Republican presidential primary, said he had narrowed his choice to Rubio and Fiorina.
"There is just no substance with Trump," Weill said.