“The temporary inability to move, while falling asleep or waking up has been reported.”

— ad for Belsomra, a sleep aid

“My dad was a bartender, and then he moved to Vegas and he had to start again as a busboy. He was a middle-aged man by now, carrying buckets of ice for much younger men, but he didn’t complain. He behe- behe- he believed in this country …”

Marco Rubio’s voice is giving out. On stage at The Fish House, a restaurant on the docks of air force town Pensacola, he’s croaking and spluttering. It’s not out of emotion, unless it’s despair. It’s pure exhaustion. Actually, it’s despair as well. He looks exhausted. His light brown skin once gave him the glow of health. Now he’s greyish.

His youthful looks were a disadvantage. Now he looks older, heavier, suddenly middle-aged, like a sales guy who missed that promotion and knows he won’t get the chance at another.

“The trouble is we have a President who doesn’t want to lead. He doesn’t want America to be the most powerful nation in the world. But the world only works when we are!”

He’s ploughing on with the stump, which I heard six weeks ago. He varied it for a few days, to do the Trump jokes — “small hands!” —  now widely judged to be a disaster. Now he’s back on the old material: greatness of America, only country, etc, etc. His heart’s not in it. He’s willing his body into enthusiasm.

The crowd are willing him on. They’re a loyal crowd. Ranged across the timbered warehouse — faux? real? retro? — two neat groups who don’t mingle much: Latinos of every social class is one, pudgy shortish couples in Walmart jeans and Adidas tops and baseball caps, some with three or four small kids tagging along, Florida Latino grandees in tailored jeans and toe-tapered boots, button down high-collared shirts and Stetson hats against the sun, old folks in Sunday best.

Second group: Republican WASPs, chinos, blazers, white shirts — folks, politically, with nowhere else to go. Jeb folk as were. Rubio’s what’s left. When you ask the Latinos what it is about Rubio they like — as opposed to Cruz — it’s his optimism, his evocation of the dream. When you ask the WASPs, it’s: “He’s reliable. He’s a Republican.”

They’re all united in one thing, gathered here today, with the Florida primary looming: urging this guy on. Trying to mind-meld their energy to him to keep upright. Doesn’t make for good atmosphere. There’s a sour air here, a gathering of losers. It’s a bit of a mercy fuck, the direction in which the mercy’s flowing not entirely clear. There were no queues snaking away from the venue, no waiting time, not much security. Maybe Marco sacked ’em: “Please God, someone shoot me.”

By now, Rubio’s dream that he might win Florida and reboot his campaign has slipped away. Trump is leading him by 10-20 points and unless they’re very wrong, or Rubio banked a huge number of early votes (the polls are open for a month in Florida), he’s gone here. It’s a winner-take-all, and Rubio hasn’t got them. He may be struggling for third. He has to be finished if he doesn’t win his own state.

Hasn’t he?

Not necessarily. Today’s third super Tuesday in a row is being seen as the Rubi(o)con for the race. Five states, two of which — Ohio and Florida — are winner-take-all. Three more — Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri — are proportional, though slanted in favour of the winner.

Kasich appears to be leading Trump in Ohio, and Illinois or Missouri may give Cruz a chance of a win. Presuming Trump takes Florida, the course of the race hinges on a few thousand votes in Ohio. If Trump doesn’t take that, it become much easier to hold him off from gaining a majority. If he does, this race becomes a dogged slog, a hideous spectacle.

“We’ve got to stand up for what we believe … that this is the gleatuh countly that Gohhh ha effer created …”

Rubio’s voice is fading into the background, just like Rubio. Exhaustion, yes, but despair as well. Rubio is 44, elected to the Senate as a Tea Party golden boy in 2010. He’s not recontesting his seat either; he has resigned it. It was all or nothing on the hope he’d be the first Latino president, a stunning vindication and continuation of the Reaganite dream.

It was nothing, rather than all. Rubio wasn’t the man he thought he was — his speeches rote-learned and lacking gravitas, his record slim. Obama hadn’t that much more, record-wise. But Obama could speak to his own history, body it forth, make himself look like history. Rubio, the more you saw him, looked like an enthusiast, a bit of a chancer, a product of the rhetoric, not the master of it.

Maybe he realised that about himself at some point, in real time, while having to do five stump speeches a day. Maybe, also, his beliefs have not survived the Trumpslaught. On the weekend, after Trump’s rallies had descended into a violence that Trump had courted, Rubio sounded shaken, speaking of the commitment to support the eventual nominee: “I still believe that, but … it’s getting harder …”

Shaken, and a little haunted. Trump is a singular figure, the epitome of the Latin-American “strongman” that the US supported as client leaders for decades. Now the strong man is in US politics, and at the head of the Republican Party. For anyone who believed the guff, this is a shocking turn of events. Rubio lets the fantasy nature of his politics slip when he talks about Bernie Sanders: “Bernie’s a decent guy, but he’s a socialist! There’s dozens of socialist countries! (!) If you want socialism go and live there! We want to be America!”

It’s said with rancour, which suggests all the more that his objection is to what socialism might do to his fantasy of America, not its reality. The son of a Cuban bartender fleeing Castro, Rubio was born long after they arrived in America. His parents were Democrats, union people.

Doubtless his Papa, icebuckets in hand, a 60-something man in a bellhop’s uniform, might have had a more nuanced view of the American dream, pros and cons. It is a horrifying thing for a son to see his father servile, and I doubt Marco could have avoided it. Hard not to see his Americophilia, which marks him off as naif rather than resolute, as a wounded recoil.

Indeed when I hear Rubio’s stump speech, peppered with boom-tish jokes — “I’m hoping to be nominated, Hillary’s hoping not to be indicted” — I can’t help but see the kid at his father’s work, left in the dining room, propped up in a red velvet banquette — mmmm red velvet, so smooth to slide into — with a 7Up and a pack of Utz potato chips, watching the stand-up comedians doing their 4pm sets to bored gamblers. Rubio’s stump has a dose of Henny Youngman about it, the pleasure of the punchline, and not much beyond it. “Take my life — please!”

Trump spotted that, when Rubio started on his joke assault. “Little Marco wants to be Don Rickles,” Trump said, referring to the veteran insult comic (still going strong!), and pinged him instantly. He got him in seven words, the way, well, Don Rickles would. Marco never really landed a blow. “Donald Trump doesn’t want to make America great. He wants to make America … orange!” What a shit joke. What a misfire. What a loser.

But what is to be a loser, in politics? A decade of close observation of US and Australian politics has convinced me that 80% of political success is just wanting it. People who want politics and nothing else, who are happy to let politics consume them, use them as its fuel — they will succeed at some level. Those who don’t, the diffident, the holding-something-back? They will always look for an out, something that allows them to avoid the possibility of destruction.

The politicians in America, now? Cruz, Kasich, Sanders, Trump. Clinton is about 90%, and it’s that lost 10% that trips her up again and again. In Australia? Keating, Howard, Gillard, Bob Brown, Christine Milne, Di Natale, Abetz, Wong, maybe Dastyari. The diffident, those who hold back? Beazley, Abbott, Turnbull, Latham, Rudd, Shorten, Tony Burke for sure, Plibersek, I think.

If Labor moved Penny Wong — yes, I’m off topic — to the House, made her leader, Dastyari deputy, Turnbull would be sashimi by now. No, that’s not racist. There’s no faking wanting it. Shorten’s tragedy is that he’s a man who wanted it, and the wanting stopped when he got within reach of it. The greatest tragedy is finding out, in politics, that you have become the dream of others, that others wanted you to represent their hopes, and that you wanted something else, a life that would let you live life.

My feeling is that all Shorten wants now is a seat on a few super boards and to enjoy his family. His life’s aim was to best David Feeney. That done, the rest is process and waiting for a table in Richo’s Chinese Restaurant, the anteroom of death. Meanwhile, all Turnbull wants is to be impressive enough, to achieve enough, for his mum to walk back through the door when he was nine. Whatever Malcolm wanted from politics, he didn’t want it for politics itself, for the meat of it, for the gristle.

That’s Rubio, I think. That’s why he’s thrown away the Senate seat. Because he doesn’t want that, the years of influence peddling, the futile bills and filibusters, the temptation of a second tilt, the gradual moldering into the system. The urge to jokes — that’s someone who is standing back from it all. Useful in commentary, fatal in the doing of it. There’s nothing like a US election campaign to give you an extended lesson in the mysteries and paradoxes of desire.

“The only thing that’s going to keep this vote is your vote, your family’s votes, your friends’ votes,” Rubio rounds off. Even if he weren’t hoarse, it would sound like a plea. His campaign is hoarse. The Reaganite fantasy is hoarse, a distant shout from a lost era, impossible to hear clearly. He hopes for release, sweet release, a catastrophic loss in Florida. And he got it — he lost his home state, humiliatingly, and he was finally granted the chance to drop out and end this.

Speech over, he leaves. It doesn’t take long. There are a few people crowding round for photos, not many. Like any mercy fuck, people leave with eyes averted, Marco’s hustled by staff, diffident, shielding him, to the car, to the plane, to the next gig. He’s moving, but not going anywhere, the face of anyone caught in their own dream, not yet fully woken.

Stop press: Well, he’s awake now. Rubio lost the Florida primary, early and hard, with Trump taking 46% and Rubio 24%. He popped up early, gave a concession speech, and announced he was suspending his campaign. In other results coming in, Kasich took Ohio from Trump: 44% to Trump’s 34%. Sanders is losing badly to Clinton in Florida — 66% to 34% — and Ohio as well, a state the Sanders campaign thought they might get. Sanders is running behind in Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri by about 10%. Trump leading in Missouri and North Carolina, but Cruz in with a chance. Full retrospective wisdom soon.

Peter Fray

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