TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — There are two words that keep coming up in Florida's U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Marco Rubio and Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy: Donald Trump.
One of the strongest arguments Murphy is making in his underdog campaign to defeat Rubio is the failed presidential candidate's support of the billionaire TV reality star. At rallies, in interviews and most notably during debates, Murphy has repeatedly made the Rubio-Trump connection.
"When Donald Trump goes low, Marco Rubio is right there with him," Murphy said to cheers at a recent Hillary Clinton rally. "Marco Rubio claims he's going to stand up to Donald Trump if he's elected to president. Really? Really? How exactly is Marco Rubio going to do that if he can't even stand up to him as a candidate? Donald Trump boasts about sexual assault, and Marco Rubio looks the other way."
There are stark differences between the candidates on guns, health care, foreign policy, economic issues and abortion, and presidential politics injects another major issue into the Senate race, as each campaign hopes to use voter dissatisfaction with the top of the ticket to hurt the opposition.
"I'm totally unhappy with Marco Rubio," said Judith Lyons, 68, a Democrat and retired massage therapist from Tallahassee. "All the nasty things throughout the whole (presidential) primary season between the two of them was just so horrible, and he's still willing to vote for (Trump). It's a political move for him."
Rubio seems to be maintaining support from Republicans, even those who are abandoning Trump. Diana Font is a lifelong Republican who is going to vote for Clinton and also Rubio. She said he's a "man of the people" who meets with constituents.
"I wanted him for president!" said Font, 57, who is the executive director of the local Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. "I'm proud of him. I'm proud of what he's done."
Rubio, 45, instantly became the front runner in the race when he decided to seek a second term at the last minute after previously stating he wouldn't. That made a more difficult path for Murphy, 33, who was still relatively unknown despite announcing his candidacy more than a year earlier. Rubio and outside groups that support him have far outspent Murphy and groups that support him.
Murphy, 33, even loaned his campaign $1 million late in the race for television ads, money that was needed after Washington groups pulled money it help Murphy, moves that upset Florida Democrats who saw Murphy closing the gap with Rubio. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulled out of the race and the Senate Majority PAC also canceled its remaining $10 commitment to Murphy, but then last week transferred at least $1 million to Floridians for a Strong Middle Class, a super PAC backing Murphy.
Rubio and outside groups supporting him spent $18.8 million in television ads in October, compared to $8.7 million by Murphy and outside groups supporting him, according to Ashley Walker, who runs the Murphy super PAC. Rubio and his allies have $4.7 million in ads reserved for the final week of the race, compared to $3.3 million in ads reserved by Murphy and the PAC supporting him.
Murphy received a big boost from President Barack Obama, who has used Florida rallies to criticize Rubio, particularly for supporting Trump.
"Marco Rubio said this was a dangerous con artist who spent a lifetime — spent a career — sticking it to working people," Obama said at an October rally in Miami. "Why does Marco Rubio still plan to vote for Donald Trump? Why is he supporting Donald Trump?"
Despite Rubio's name recognition and money advantage, Murphy has remained close in recent polls, a sign that Rubio has lost his shine with Florida voters after the bitter presidential race and attacks that he ignored his job as senator to pursue higher ambitions.
Murphy is a two-term congressman who has been attacked for embellishing his resume. He has said his work as a certified public accountant and as a small business owner help him. But while he worked for an accounting firm in Florida, he wasn't a licensed CPA in the state, and his environmental cleanup business was set up by his wealthy father.
Like Murphy, but to a lesser degree, Rubio has infused presidential politics into his campaign, pointing out that Murphy unequivocally supports Clinton.
"If Congressman Murphy is willing to trust Hillary Clinton 100 percent, he's in rare company," Rubio said during a debate. "The job of a U.S. senator is not to blindly trust a president because they happen to be from your own party."
While Murphy is sharing stages with Clinton and Obama, Rubio is distancing himself for Trump, who often called Rubio "Little Marco" during the presidential campaign. Yes, he supports him, but he says he stands by statements he made during the presidential campaign. Rubio doesn't campaign with Trump, continues to denounce his words and at an October state GOP dinner, he didn't mention Trump once in a half-hour speech even though he spoke after Trump running mate Mike Pence.
Still, regardless of the issue, Murphy has repeatedly mentioned Trump when talking about Rubio. During the only two Senate debates, Murphy mentioned Trump by name 28 times, or roughly once for every two minutes of speaking time he had.
Asked about police relations with the black communities? Murphy mentioned Trump. Middle East policy? Trump. Women's issues? Trump. Cuba? Trump.
"A noun, a verb and Donald Trump. That's his answer to everything," Rubio said.
Associated Press writer Mike Schneider in Orlando contributed to this report.