Popular senator Joni Ernst from Iowa appeared on stage with Republican candidate Marco Rubio on Monday – the latest piece of good news for the Florida senator’s presidential campaign.
Rubio gained endorsements from two local newspapers over the past 48 hours: the Sioux City Journal and the Des Moines Register – the latter the state’s largest.
“I am not endorsing,” Ernst said shortly after taking the stage in Des Moines to a standing ovation against the backdrop of red, white and blue signs bearing Rubio’s name.
But standing inside a ballroom before a crowd of roughly 200, the appearance of the popular home-state senator alongside Rubio just one week before the Iowa caucuses had all the trimmings of a formal stamp of approval. Iowa is the first state to vote for Republican and Democratic candidates.
Introducing Rubio as a “good friend” and someone “near and dear” to her heart, Ernst made an impassioned pitch for why the senator from Florida is qualified to be the next commander in chief. Invoking her experience in the US military, Ernst lauded in particular Rubio’s emphasis on national security.
“Those boots that are on the ground fighting for our values, those are the boots that I wore. Those are the boots that so many Iowans have worn,” she said. “And those are the boots that Marco Rubio understands. He knows what it means to keep our country safe.”
Rubio was an early backer of Ernst during her 2014 Senate campaign, in which she catapulted to national fame with an ad that likened trimming spending in Washington to castrating hogs on her farm.
“ Make’em squeal,” she memorably said, in what went on to become one of the most talked-about political ads that cycle.
Rubio, through his political action committee, spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars helping boost Ernst in that contest. Some of his top aides additionally worked to elect Ernst, and Rubio hit the campaign trail and fundraisers to bolster her candidacy.
Now, even as Ernst officially stays neutral in the Republican race for the presidency, the timing of her attendance at Rubio’s rally could lend a critical jolt to to his prospects in a state where he is polling in third behind Donald Trump and senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
The Iowa senator also echoed Rubio’s message of restoring the American Dream, a centerpiece of his campaign.
“He wants to make sure that we have an America we are going to be proud of. I’ve seen him fight for that for his children, for my children, and for your children as well,” she said.
Rubio said he was “grateful” to have Ernst by his side, weaving her own narrative into his stump speech to highlight what they had in common. Both of them were underdogs in their respective Senate races, he said, taking on more establishment-friendly candidates.
“She wasn’t supposed to win, she wasn’t supposed to run,” Rubio said, adding he was “proud” to have supported her in a competitive five-way primary in 2014.
Rubio also nodded to their shared humble beginnings. While his personal background as the son of a bartender and a maid is an essential piece of Rubio’s tale, Ernst has similarly spoken of a modest childhood working on her family’s farm.
She had but one nice pair of shoes, Rubio told those gathered, which her parents would wrap in bread bags when it rained to prevent them from being ruined.
Addressing reporters after the event, Rubio said Ernst “exemplifies what I hope the Republican party and the conservative movement will be about”.
“A party of upward mobility of empowering people that don’t start out in life with a lot of money and a lot of advantages but through free enterprise and limited government are able to improve their lives and the lives of their families.”
After the rally, Vinita Smith of neighboring Panora made a beeline to the front of the room where Ernst and Rubio were snapping photos with eager fans. After embracing Ernst and offering her a prayer, Smith told the Guardian she was weighing whether to caucus for Rubio or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
What bearing did Ernst’s presence have on the decision before caucus-goers like herself?
“I think it probably helps the overall perception. She’s very well respected,” Smith said, pausing for a moment before adding: “It does nothing but help him.”
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