AIKEN — Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio drew enough people to see him speak on Wednesday that some couldn’t.
Minutes before the start of his town hall-style engagement at Odell Weeks Activity Center off Whiskey Road, officials announced “fire code issues” that left some of his supporters stranded outside.
Temporary speakers were placed outside, and those who stayed heard the U.S. senator touch on two issues relevant to their corner of South Carolina: the continued funding of Savannah River Site’s Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility and eminent domain.
The federal government is supposed to be a limited government, Rubio said, but has started to become involved in areas that really belong to cities and states, communities and families.
“Look at what it’s doing to this community right now - the MOX facility, where it refuses to fully fund it,” said Rubio, making his last pitch to area voters before Saturday’s GOP primary. “When I’m president, we will fully fund and complete that facility once and for all.”
Earlier this month President Obama’s 2017 fiscal year budget proposal included plans to halt construction at the MOX site, a project that would turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.
Rubio also touted his experience in helping craft legislation that made securing eminent domain in Florida, where he previously served as a state representative, among the most stringent in the nation. Eminent domain is an issue in the proposed Palmetto Pipeline, which would move up to 7 million gallons a day of gasoline, diesel and ethanol through properties in Aiken, Edgefield, McCormick, Richmond and Burke counties locally to Jacksonville, Fla.
A South Carolina Senate committee recently approved a bill making explicit that eminent domain powers are not allowed for “a private, for-profit company, including a publicly-traded for-profit company, that is not defined as a ‘public utility.’”
Last year, the Georgia Department of Transportation denied pipeline company Kinder Morgan the right to condemn property along the proposed route in that state. A Fulton County Superior Court judge has yet to rule in an appeal filed by the company.
The bulk of Rubio’s talk, however, focused on many of the talking points discussed by other GOP presidential candidates who made stops this week in Aiken.
Like the others, he favored nominating a “strict constitutionalist” to replace the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and wants to strengthen the armed forces to augment antiterrorism efforts. He also took time to condemn the politics of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, “the socialist,” and Hilary Clinton, “the unqualified.”
Unlike his opponents, he spent more time talking about his intentions on building back the economy and tackling student debt, peppering in personal stories of his upbringing with two working-class parents and his own struggles with college loans.
Though the event was billed as a town hall, Rubio took no questions from the audience. Instead, he paced the stage with attendees flanking him on all sides. On the wall above was a scoreboard with “45” showing for both the home and visitors, the time frozen at 20:16. Both were a nod to the next president being the country’s 45th, and in 2016.
Rubio said his goal if elected will be keeping secure the thing that makes the U.S. unique: the American dream.
“My friends, if we lose the American dream then we’re not special anymore,” he said. “That’s what we fight to preserve. That’s the stakes in this election.”
Prior to his speech, Rubio was endorsed by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who said he has faith Rubio will not only prove to be a strong commander-in-chief and a boon for economy, but the person who could attract a new generation of conservative practitioners. During the event, The State newspaper reported that S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley would also endorse Rubio.
Before Wednesday, Sandi Meesseman, of Aiken, said it was a toss-up between Rubio and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz for her vote. She even tried an online quiz to see which candidate her views were most in line with, finding that she paired perfectly with Rubio.
She was most impressed with his stance on faith and for pledging to support the MOX project, which currently employees some of her family.
“Now I’m definitely on board,” Meesseman said.