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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.

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The rest of the CPAC speakers’ roster was stocked with other potential 2016-ers. Ryan skipped the fact that he was Mitt Romney’s running mate last November, and doubled down on his role as his party’s top budget man. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) of Louisiana warned the Republicans against becoming “the party of austerity,” but skipped his recent slam calling Republicans “the stupid party.”

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Gov. Scott Walker (R) of Wisconsin, a GOP rock star for surviving a recall election after reining in public-sector unions, cast himself in the tradition of innovative governors. "Real reform happens in the states,” he said.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who rose up in 2012 to become the main social-conservative alternative to Mr. Romney, was subdued, following the passing of his nephew the day before. But he still took his shots at Obama. "Face it, the left can always promise more stuff,” he said.

But aside from the back-to-back speeches by Rubio and Paul, the most important may have been by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He was the featured speaker at Friday evening’s Ronald Reagan Dinner, and he did not hesitate to dress down the party to which his family has devoted decades of service.

"All too often we’re associated with being 'anti' everything," Mr. Bush said. "Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates even though they share our core beliefs, because those voters feel unloved, unwanted, and unwelcome in our party."

Bush is a leading Republican voice for comprehensive immigration reform, as a way to help the party overcome its massive deficit among Latino voters, and now supports a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants (though he skipped that point in his speech). His “anti-gay” reference suggested a nudge to the Republicans to rethink their stance or at least their tone on gay rights. Earlier in the day, Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, a shortlister in the 2012 veepstakes, announced that he now supports gay marriage and that his son is gay – making the senator one of the few major Republicans in elective office to openly change his view on marriage.

Bush has suggested he is contemplating a run for the presidency, though he took his name off the CPAC straw poll ballot (saying it’s too soon for such an exercise). If his protégé, Rubio, decides to run, Bush is unlikely to, analysts say. His last name could also be a major obstacle, given lingering negative views of his brother’s presidency.

A more likely scenario is that Rubio runs and Jeb Bush becomes one of his biggest backers. Bush is hardly old, just 60, but Rubio represents more of the generational change and demographic diversity that Republicans say they’re looking for.

As CPAC drew to a close, college student Dennis Gonzalez said he was impressed both by Rubio and Walker, because of their economic messages. The immigration issue just isn’t a big deal for Mr. Gonzalez, a junior at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., even though he is an immigrant (from Honduras) and now a US citizen.

“I was OK with Obama; I voted for him,” says Gonzalez, who came to CPAC at the invitation of a friend who is involved with the group Young Americans for Liberty, which paid for his hotel. “But the way things are going has me fundamentally questioning what I want. So I’m giving it [the Republican Party] a shot.”

To the organizers of CPAC, who called this year’s conference “America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives,” that’s what it’s all about.

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