He’s the Man

Marco Rubio Wows CPAC

The Florida senator riles up the conservative crowd. By Howard Kurtz.

Marco Rubio delivered a State of the Union speech on steroids.

In a passionate, rapid-fire laundry list Thursday, the Florida senator drew loud cheers at CPAC as he delivered a paean to the “hardworking middle class” and called on conservatives “to be their voice.” It was an upbeat speech with strong nationalistic overtones.

Holding up three glasses of water—a joking allusion to his much-mocked sip during the response to President Obama’s State of the Union—Rubio said it was a “foolish notion” that Republicans are consumed by infighting.

Rubio quickly played to anti-abortion supporters, saying “life begins at conception,” and that his support of traditional marriage “does not make me a bigot.”

In a mile-a-minute cadence, Rubio called for “pro-growth energy policies, including oil and natural gas,” a “pro-growth tax structure,” and “school choice,” while declaring that “there is no tax increase in the world that will solve our long-term debt problem.” He urged better vocational programs, because not everyone, he said, needs a four-year college degree.

Rubio also called for health-care reform—but not a government “takeover”—that will “empower Americans to buy health insurance from any company in America.” It was not clear why that is not the case today.

Trying to broaden his message, the senator said people have a “right to be pessimistic” about the political system in Washington. But, he said, “our government has never been America.”

Rubio closed by attacking China’s totalitarian society and said Americans must stop it “from being the leading country in the world.” Our global detractors “may like to hate us, but they’d sure like to be us.”

Dubbed “the RG3 of politics” (a reference to the Washington Redskins quarterback) by Republican pollster Whit Ayres, Rubio is hot right now, especially since he’s playing a pivotal role with the administration in trying to forge a compromise immigration bill. As a Cuban-American, he would singlehandedly give his party credibility with Hispanic voters, who fled the GOP in droves last year after the harsh rhetoric of the primaries.

There has been some backstage chatter that Rubio is unlikely to run if Jeb Bush becomes the third member of his family to seek the presidency. The two are longtime allies in Florida, and a Bush campaign could drain Rubio’s fundraising base. The former Florida governor is certainly leaving the door ajar for a 2016 run in the wake of appearing on five Sunday talk shows this week, even as he accused journalists questioning his presidential plans of being “crack addicts.”

Rand Paul has also ridden a wave of favorable buzz into CPAC by staging a 13-hour Senate filibuster to protest the lack of information about Obama’s drone policy. Paul drew some support on the left while becoming, at least temporarily, a folk hero on the right. The Kentucky libertarian, the son of perpetual presidential candidate Ron Paul, has said he is considering his own White House run in 2016.

Paul pivoted off his filibuster by reprising its theme: “My question was whether presidential power has limits.” He said that while Obama claims to be a civil libertarian, he authorizes drone strikes against Americans and allows suspects to be held at Gitmo without trial.

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“Will you or won’t you defend the Constitution?” he asked the president rhetorically.

If the United States uses such tactics, Paul asked, “what exactly is it that our brave young men and women are fighting for?” He said those who dismiss the debate as “frivolous” should tell the parents of 6,000 soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan that “the Bill of Rights is no big deal.”

Paul also hit Obama for piling up federal debt and giving Egypt another $250 million in foreign aid despite the federal budget cutbacks. “Not one penny more,” Paul declared, drawing a warm reception that did not match the intensity of Rubio’s.