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CPAC: Why Marco Rubio could be the real winner (+video)

Marco Rubio came in a close second to Rand Paul in CPAC's presidential straw poll. But Florida's junior senator has a lot going for him as he has morphed into a mainstream Republican favorite.

By Staff writer / March 17, 2013

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Md., March 14. Senator Rubio’s speech got the packed ballroom to its feet with an approach that was more inspirational than hard-edged.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

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NATIONAL HARBOR, MD.

Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, came in second Saturday to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in the presidential straw poll at the big annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC.

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A brief review of CPAC speakers

But just barely. Senator Rubio got 23 percent to Senator Paul’s 25 – the only two people to score in double digits of the 23 potential candidates on the ballot (plus 44 write-ins).

There are two big reasons to discount the poll: It’s unscientific and the 2016 presidential election is far away.

Some attendees didn’t bother to vote, they said, because they’re more focused on the 2014 midterms. And more than half (52 percent) of the 2,390 people who did vote were between the ages of 18 and 25 – hardly typical of the Republican electorate, though reflective of CPAC’s success in attracting young people. Many of today’s college Republicans lean libertarian like Paul.

Still, Rubio can take heart from his performance in the first cattle call of the 2016 cycle. Though elected to the Senate in 2010 as a tea party darling (like Paul), he has morphed into a mainstream GOP favorite. Rubio’s CPAC speech wasn’t as pungent as Paul’s – “The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” the Kentuckian said – but he still got the packed ballroom to its feet Thursday with an approach that was more inspirational than hard-edged.

“We don't need a new idea,” Rubio said. “There is an idea. The idea is called America, and it still works.”

Rubio also tossed in some red meat to social conservatives, defending traditional marriage, opposition to abortion, and skepticism on climate change. But he didn’t dwell on those topics, and on gay marriage, he occupied a middle ground, allowing that states have the right to define marriage how they wish.  

Rubio’s speech was mostly focused on the economy, and he sounded almost Obamaesque in his discussion of the middle class and education. He spoke of a family he knows that wants to reach the middle class, but with parents who lack the training for jobs that would get them there.

“They're not freeloaders. They're not liberals,” Rubio said, winning some laughs. “They're just everyday people that want what everybody else wants…. They want a better life for themselves and an even better life for their children.”

Except for the slap at liberals, that could have been President Obama speaking. Rubio also played it safe on immigration, making no mention of the issue, his new support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, or his role in the Senate trying to forge a bipartisan consensus.

Paul’s posture was more that of an outsider, attacking Mr. Obama and the Washington establishment (of both parties), highlighting his recent 13-hour filibuster over drones, and issuing populist appeals to the young and libertarian-minded.

“Ask the Facebook generation whether we should put a kid in jail for the nonviolent crime of drug use, and you'll hear a resounding no,” Paul said. “Ask the Facebook generation if they want to bail out too-big-to-fail banks with their tax dollars, and you'll hear a ‘Hell no.’ ”

He also tried to outdo House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, calling for a budget that reaches balance in five years. (Congressman Ryan’s budget gets there in 10.) And he called for elimination of the Department of Education, echoing President Ronald Reagan from 30 years ago.

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