Waverly, Iowa: People might have gotten the wrong impression lately that US Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio is some kind of pointy-toed-boot-wearing fancy-pants. Stop thinking that. Right now.
He owns a handgun. Went to a gun store on Christmas Eve, in fact, because he was just itching to buy one, he told New Hampshire voters last week.
He played football in college and obsesses about it as a fan, as he makes abundantly clear in a new ad. He even married a Miami Dolphins cheerleader.
And no one would be harder on terrorists: he would give them a "one-way ticket to Guantanamo, where we're going to find out everything they know."
Rubio is radiating machismo on the campaign trail lately, lending locker-room locutions to his pronouncements denigrating President Barack Obama's military strategy ("This is not a real war on terror. This is a joke"), or sizing up adversaries like Vladimir Putin ("He smells weakness"), or his dream choices for Cabinet posts (top-flight talent from the New England Patriots).
In fairness, Rubio's conspicuously manly talk comes as rivals have tried to infantilise or even feminise him – none more than Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who speculated recently that Rubio would get creamed by Hillary Clinton in a general election: "She'll pat him on the head and then cut his heart out."
On Monday, Christie again spoke of the 44-year-old Rubio as if he were a child, telling Fox News, "This is a first-term senator who still is learning where the men's room is in the Senate, let alone figuring out how to lead a country."
And then there was the hyperventilation online over Rubio's sleek new boots – a $US135, high-heeled, black leather pair of Florsheims given to him by his wife for Christmas. Senator Rand Paul mocked them as "cute." Jeb Bush's super PAC produced a video showing someone prancing around in a pair similar to Rubio's to the tune of the Nancy Sinatra recording "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'."
"One of these days, young Marco's going to flip-flop-flip on you," the singer says, ignoring the fact that the fuss was about boots, not flip-flops.
The macho-isation of Rubio seems aimed not just at blunting the emasculating broadsides from his Republican rivals, who are uniformly older (if only by a few months, in Senator Ted Cruz's case). It projects a tough-mindedness designed to answer a nagging question among the party's voters: can a baby-faced first-term senator handle the challenges of the presidency in an usually gritty political moment?
The answer from the heat-packing, waterboarding, football-tossing Florida senator? Yes, he can.
In Claremont, New Hampshire, on Friday night, Rubio expounded in elaborate detail on how he could exercise the powers of the presidency to undermine the New England Patriots, a longtime nemesis of his beloved but lately much-lamented hometown team, the Dolphins.
His mischievous plan: sideline Tom Brady, the star Patriots quarterback, by recruiting him to a Rubio White House. "I am appointing that dude to the Cabinet," he said, to loud laughter.
He was not finished. He would deport Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' formidable tight end. The crowd gasped in mock horror.
"Belichick," he added, referring to the Patriots' head coach, "would be defence secretary or something. He'll be blitzing ISIS. It will be awesome."
Occasionally, his sharper message is landing flat with some fans. "Did you hear him say he wanted to torture people?" asked Jon Lubecky, 39, an Army veteran who heard the senator speak last week in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Lubecky said he largely liked what he heard until the line about sending captured terrorists to Guantanamo Bay, which has become standard in Rubio's speeches.
"You've got Cruz saying he's going to carpet bomb the Middle East. Rubio saying he'd torture people," Lubecky added. "And Trump who wants to nuke everybody."
The pumped-up guy talk – including increasingly addressing his listeners with the familiar "guys" – calls to mind the ways candidates in both parties have sought to project virility or toughness in recent years: Mitt Romney, like John Kerry before him, tossed a football on the tarmac, alloying his patrician bearing with regular-guy athleticism (though Kerry also harmed himself by being photographed windsurfing off Nantucket and snowshoeing in Sun Valley, neither exactly a lunch-pail pursuit).
Sarah Palin forever extolled her expertise at hunting and fishing. And Cruz has donned face paint and full camouflage this year to go hunting with the star of Duck Dynasty, Phil Robertson, who explained his criteria for supporting a candidate:
"Would they kill a duck and put him in a pot and make him a good duck gumbo?" he asked. "I've looked at the candidates," Robertson said. "Ted Cruz is my man."
If Rubio seems especially eager to display his masculinity, he is also having fun. Speaking to voters here Monday, where 150 people braved sub-zero temperatures to see him, the senator was ready with a joke when someone in the audience good-naturedly brought up the boots.
"They sold out of those boots online," he said proudly. "They're made in Wisconsin. Florsheim! You know what that means? That means I did more for American business in one week than Barack Obama did in seven years!"
(The Florsheim website shows the boots are on back-order until next month.)
In truth, there is nothing especially effete about Rubio. He has always embraced his working-class, immigrant roots. He often recalls his financial struggles to repay his student loans, and to raise four children, though more recently he has earned enough to fulfil lifelong dreams like buying a boat.
While he has yet to shoot anything during this campaign, unlike Cruz, it is probably also unlikely that Rubio will be shot on film doing anything really fancy-pants, like windsurfing or snowshoeing, anytime soon.
New York Times