Beyond pocketbook concerns, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky touched on American exceptionalism, civil liberties, guns, marriage and abortion, among other topics, in back-to-back appearances Thursday before several thousand conservative activists. Both were enthusiastically received, with Rubio getting off the single best applause line and Paul earning a more generous reception overall from the crowd.
That wasn't a huge surprise, since Paul's father, former Rep. Ron Paul, was a perennial favorite of the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual event whose attendees tilt younger and more libertarian than the rest of the GOP base. Rand Paul has generated growing interest as a likely presidential prospect after a recent filibuster over drones that lasted almost 13 hours.
Still, Rubio more than held his own in offering up generous servings of red-meat rhetoric - and no mention at all of his current efforts to craft an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, including a path to citizenship that is unpopular with CPAC delegates.
The three-day gathering, barely four months after the GOP's defeat in the presidential election, is being closely watched for clues to the party's future direction. And Rubio countered what he said would be criticism of his failure to offer any new ideas in his speech.
"We don't need a new idea," said the Florida senator. "The idea is called America, and it still works," he added, generating the most prolonged applause of the dueling speeches.
Perhaps anticipating his libertarian rival, who was up next, Rubio called himself a conservative believer in limited government and constitutional principles. He also said that the U.S. military couldn't be in every battle around the globe but, at the same time, America can't retreat from the world (an implicit rebuttal of Paul's non-interventionist leanings).
Rubio also stoked nationalistic sentiment, by warning that China's military and economy are on the rise, with ambitions of world pre-eminence, while America's leaders are "bickering" about whether to spend more money than the government takes in.
Both senators skipped a party luncheon on Capitol Hill with President Barack Obama in order to appear before the year's most important gathering of grassroots conservatives. And both joked about their most recent spins in the spotlight. Rubio, who awkwardly sipped from a bottle of water during the GOP rebuttal to Obama's State of the Union speech, pulled three glasses of water out from a shelf in the podium and quipped, "I love the hospitality but this is an exaggeration."
Paul, after delivering a mock complaint that he'd been given "a measly 10 minutes" to speak (he took considerably more), held up three binders from his recent filibuster and said he had come with "13 hours of information."
The first-term senator, who, like Rubio has also been a favorite of tea party voters, said his filibuster over the use of unmanned drones was part of a wider debate on the limits of presidential power.
To applause, Paul said that the GOP "has grown stale and moss covered." And he said that "the path forward for the Republican Party is rooted in a respect for the Constitution" and for individual rights, including the right to bear arms (a topic that Rubio didn't touch, though he did manage to mention his support for traditional marriage and the idea that life begins at conception).
While the 2016 presidential contest is at a nascent stage, the potential candidates are treating CPAC as important, and an early organizing test. Paul supporters in the crowd waved "Stand With Rand" placards, jumping to their feet and cheering as he left the stage.
Other potential GOP contenders scheduled to speak during the three-day gathering in the Maryland suburbs of Washington are former Sen. Rick Santorum, Rep. Paul Ryan, Govs. Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Not invited to address several thousand conservative activists: Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, both of whom are regarded by conference organizers as too soft on government spending.
Also on the program are voices from the party's recent past, including 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, 2008 running-mate Sarah Palin and former presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich.
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