A day before the last Republican presidential debate of the year, two Republican candidates held rallies near the Las Vegas strip, less than a mile apart. In spite of their proximity, the events had almost nothing in common.
Marco Rubio was in a medium-size hotel ballroom, with a few hundred people in attendance. It seemed, at first, that Rubio might struggle to fill the room, as supporters came in slowly. But fill it did.
In many ways, Rubio’s Tuesday afternoon rally at the Renaissance Las Vegas felt traditional. He opened, like so many politicians, with a line linking himself to the local audience.
“It’s great to be back in Las Vegas,” Rubio said. “It’s great to be here with all of you. Because I just saw a few of them in the audience, I always tell people, ‘You know I have more family in Las Vegas than I do in Miami,’ which is good, because if I win the caucus by like 10 or 15 votes, you’ll know why, right?”
He continued, “Even though it’s much more of them than that. But I don’t want to assume I have all of their votes….”
Rubio delivered his stump speech in the way you’d expect a stump speech to be delivered: a bunch of practiced lines, meant to be repeated over and over in front of multiple crowds, for months.
While Rubio was harsh on President Obama and his policies, particularly the President’s stance on ISIS, the Florida senator was much kinder to his Republican competitors for the GOP nomination.
“The way I view it is, we’re going to have nine people on stage, and a few others in in the earlier debate. Not a single one of them is a Socialist. Not one,” Rubio said. “We’re going to have nine people on that stage, and another three or four earlier, not a single one of them is being investigated by the FBI. So I think we’re off to a pretty good start compared to the other side.”
Afterward, Natalie Reda, a Rubio supporter who describes herself as a half-Cuban Las Vegas resident said that even if Rubio isn’t the candidate attracting the most attention right now, he’s still got something going for him.
“I respect Rubio, because he’s classy,” Reda told NPR, “and I’m not saying Trump’s not. He just has a habit of not knowing when and when not to turn his filters off. And as president, I want to be able to respect the man who’s the face of our country.”
When Donald Trump took the stage at a gigantic hall in an event center at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino a few hours later, the mood was entirely different. The crowd was in the thousands, not the hundreds. People waited in line for hours, and were wanded by Secret Service agents as they entered the venue. About three times as many media showed up to Trump’s event as Rubio’s. Even the music at Trump’s rally was louder.
Where Rubio seemed to deliver lines that had been tested and perfected, Trump riffed. He managed to say a few of his signature lines again and again, but most of Trump’s address seemed to be a complete improvisation.
He seemed to admit as much from the stage, comparing himself to Hillary Clinton, who he says is entirely scripted and relies on teleprompters too much. “Can you imagine how easy that would be?” he said, critiquing Clinton. “I have two pieces of glass [TelePrompTers]? I read for a half hour?
“Instead, I speak for an hour and a half with no notes, no nothing! The good thing about doing it this way…. We can talk about current events…. We can talk about what happened 14 minutes ago.”
Hecklers interrupted Trump multiple times. “Do I hear some noise over there,” Trump called out during one disruption. As the hecklers were taken out of the room, sometimes forcibly by security and police in the venue, the crowd chanted and cheered, many yelling directly at those being escorted out.
About 30 or 40 minutes into Trump’s remarks, people started leaving. But he kept going. Trump mocked journalists who claim Ted Cruz is surging in the polls, though he didn’t actually critique Cruz himself too sharply. He called multiple candidates low energy. He critiqued the news media several times.
Trump ended up speaking for an hour. Afterward, many who made it to the end had positive things to say about the event.
“Trump creates a lot of energy,” said Lenny Rock of Las Vegas. “He gets you going. He’s saying all the right things. He’s saying exactly what we want to have done in this country.”
But at least one woman, Mary Parks was not pleased. She had been in attendance at Marco Rubio’s rally earlier in the day, and said the Florida senator did a great job after that event. But Parks told NPR that she left the Trump rally before it was done. In a text message she wrote of the rally, “We had to go! We couldn’t take the rambling any longer!”