10/25/2016 15:09 EDT | Updated 10/26/2017 01:12 EDT

With Trump on ropes, Clinton looks to new target of winning power in Congress

COCONUT CREEK, Fla. — Spare a thought for Donald Trump — Hillary Clinton barely did as she began a visit to America's biggest swing state Tuesday.

Democrats' increasing confidence about winning the White House has prompted a late-campaign recalibration, slightly away from the presidential race toward the new target of regaining power in Congress.

Clinton spent the first five minutes of a Florida speech lacing into an opponent — and it wasn't Trump. It was Marco Rubio. Clinton urged a college crowd to elect an alternative with shared values on climate change, immigration reform, economic fairness and prison sentencing.

"Please, when you get out and vote, please remember you can send Patrick Murphy to the United States Senate. You will be glad you did," Clinton said as she started a two-day stop in Florida, where a win would essentially guarantee her election.

"Unlike his opponent, Patrick Murphy has never been afraid to stand up to Donald Trump."

The same state-based polls that show Clinton as the favourite show her party's candidates trailing in some places, like Florida.

But the ground is shifting. 

Worsening numbers for Republicans prompted one prominent election-analysis firm Tuesday to predict a Democratic takeover of the Senate; the Cook Political Report said it expected Democrats to win at least five new seats, enough for a small majority.

This explains Democrats' increased hope of overseeing the implosion of a bright star — Rubio. Rubio's longshot challenger is now polling just a few percentage points behind. Liberal commentators are urging the party to open its wallet and start spending more money on congressional ads in Florida.

Spanish-language ads already linking Rubio to the unpopular Trump.

One such ad blared out over the radio as Johnny Cardon stood outside his shirt shop in Miami's Little Havana. Like a number of Floridians, he's thinking of splitting his ticket — voting for a Democratic president, and for the Republican senator, Rubio: "Everybody likes him."

Not everyone.

Some Trump fans make it clear they're miffed. They're annoyed at their senator's habit of occasionally scolding their nominee — Rubio chided him for calling the election rigged, and for that old tape where Trump talked about grabbing women's genitals.

David Radford says he's not even sure he'd vote for Rubio anymore.

"We hate Rubio now," he said at a Trump rally in Naples, Fla. 

"Rubio, Paul Ryan and other Republican luminaries came out against him instantaneously (over the groping tape)... I'm gonna vote for other Republicans down-ballot — but the ones that came out hard against him publicly would be the ones that get left behind."

The Democrats are attempting a squeeze play.

If Rubio is caught between the conflicting pressures of retaining Trump-skeptical voters like Cardon and Trump-loving ones like Radford, Democrats keep trying to turn the screws. They constantly raise Trump as an issue in the Senate race.

"Marco Rubio claims he's going to stand up to Donald Trump if elected president. Really? Really? Come on," Rubio's challenger, Murphy, said as he warmed up the crowd for Clinton on Tuesday. 

"How exactly is Marco Rubio going to do that if he can't even stand up to Donald Trump as a candidate?... More than 160 Republican leaders abandoned Donald Trump's bigoted campaign. But Marco Rubio — right there with him. Marco Rubio continues to put his personal political ambition first every time."

It's a tactic they're trying in a few states. Prominent Republicans are dealing with it like Rubio — by avoiding talk of Trump.

Winning the Senate still wouldn't guarantee Democrats easy passage of Clinton's agenda. Her legislative priorities would still run into two roadblocks: the Senate's 60-per-cent threshold for advancing legislation, along with a House of Representatives that will almost certainly remain Republican. 

But it would give Democrats enough votes to confirm most federal appointments, control committees, shape legislation within committees, and perhaps the most coveted power of all: the ability to bring Supreme Court nominations to a vote on the Senate floor.