TAMPA, Fla. — He's a brash, political outsider and a wealthy builder who's largely self-funding a primary campaign with the slogan "Put America First."
But Carlos Beruff, who is polling at the top of a crowded pack of GOP Senate candidates looking to replace Sen. Marco Rubio, is hoping to show he's more than just a mini Donald Trump, as the primary in the Sunshine State heats up. In an election year where the left is looking to capitalize on Trump's offensive comments on down-ballot races, Democrats believe taking on Beruff in the fall would make their road to a majority in the Senate easier.
"Do we have some similarities? Of course," Beruff said about Trump in a brief sit-down over coffee with BuzzFeed News after he attended the GOP presidential nominee's rally in downtown Tampa Saturday morning. "We're both builders — of course he builds big things, I build little houses — but we understand the economy, and we understand what happens when an economy goes bad, because nobody or no industry is more sensitive to the economy than the housing industry.
"Business people — we've got to solve problems. We can't succeed if we don't solve problems. If we don't overcome hurdles and challenges, then guess what? You're not in business very long."
Beruff has called for a travel ban from all Middle Eastern countries except Israel and reiterated Trump's call for a wall along the Southern border. He's also referred to President Obama as an "animal." But he repeatedly insisted that despite his support for Trump and similarities in their background, he's developed his own ideas and proposals after traveling around the state.
"We've been to all 67 counties. I'm running on what I stand for and I hope the voters want that kind of person," he said.
At a time when the electorate seems to be rewarding outsiders, Beruff said if he makes it through the primary, he doesn't think he needs to change his rhetoric — as establishment Republicans are hoping Trump will — for the general election.
"There's no pivoting necessary," he said. "I've always hated the hyphenated American. OK? ... I'm American first. I'm Cuban by descent. I love my heritage. I love my roots. But I'm American first. Everything else is second, so from my perspective, we should change all that. Cuban-Americans should be American-Cubans, African-Americans should be American-Africans.
"I don't care where the hell you come from. American has to be first. And if everybody takes that to heart, then we unite Americans, so part of my thing is 'Put America First.'"
Democrats are already spending millions trying to connect Senate Republican candidates to Trump. Beruff, they believe, will be an easy target.
But he believes his message — although similar to Trump's — is harder to attack because he's an immigrant himself.
"I'm not against immigration," he said. "I'm against people breaking the law and not doing the paperwork or paying taxes, or quite frankly if they're doing anything criminal, they should get the hell out of there.
"What I don't want is a lot of people who come in this country and take advantage of all the good things the country has, but they still want to be wherever they came from. So make up your mind — either be there or be here, because let me tell you something, if you're not sure, you should go back because there's lots of people who really want to be here for the right reasons. OK?"
"Our message is clear," he continued. "I'm not terribly worried. I have an inherent belief that people get it right 90% of the time and all the money in the world doesn't buy you an election. If people don't like you and don't think you're the right guy, then guess what? You ain't gonna get there."
Worried about losing the seat to Democrats, Republicans in recent weeks — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Chamber of Commerce — have urged Rubio to run for re-election. Their concern is that a late, bitter August primary with a nominee with low name ID could hurt them in November. Although Rubio for weeks had maintained that his decision to retire from the Senate had not changed, on Monday, following the shooting in Orlando, he seemed to be reconsidering.
"When (horror) visits your home state, and it impacts a community you know well, it really gives you pause to think a little bit about, you know, your service to your country and where you can be most useful to your country," Rubio said in a radio interview.
But Beruff insisted he wouldn't drop out based on Rubio's decision.
"If Marco runs, I'm staying in the race," he said without hesitation.
"Only time will tell whether it gets tougher or it fragments... Unfortunately, we're not running our campaign on the political establishment in Washington. If we were, I'd give a damn. But I don't. They're not sending me any money. And I don't want it. I'm running on what I stand for and I hope the voters want that kind of person."
Beruff also criticized some establishment Republicans for not giving Donald Trump a full-hearted endorsement. "Some of the people that are running for office, who say, 'We'll support the nominee, but I really...' Give me a break. Make a decision! Live with your decision and take responsibility for the choices that you make."
"I think [Trump's] got the right vision at the end of the day."
Although he is unabashed in sharing his views at campaign events, Beruff has yet to do that on the debate stage against his opponents — which include businessman Todd Wilcox, Reps. Ron DeSantis, and David Jolly, and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera — because he doesn't think it's necessary.
"At this point, I'm the only guy whose got traction. And the only people who are working as hard as we are. Nobody is working as hard as we are," he said.