CPAC: Why Marco Rubio could be the real winner

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.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS
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.

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.

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.

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.”

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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