Speaking at the first major showcase of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told conservatives Thursday that they shouldn’t abandon their principles after November’s defeats but should try to better connect with “everyday people” and their economic struggles.
“Our principles, they still work,” Rubio said on the first day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference just outside Washington. “We don’t need a new idea. There is an idea. The idea’s called America, and it still works.”
Rubio was enthusiastically received on the first day of the three-day conference that will feature several of the GOP’s possible White House aspirants. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the Rubio mentor and ideological soul mate who hasn’t ruled out a 2016 candidacy, will speak at the conference Friday night.
Other potential presidential candidates at the conference include Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who spoke immediately after Rubio on Thursday. Friday’s lineup of speakers includes House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and part-time Palm Beacher Donald Trump, who has flirted with presidential candidacies in the past.
Noticeably absent is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate and spoke at last year’s conference. Christie wasn’t invited back this year after embracing President Barack Obama and criticizing congressional Republicans for their response to Hurricane Sandy last fall.
Conservatives are still wincing from Obama’s reelection in November and Democratic gains in Congress. With exit polls showing that minorities, women and young voters sided with Democrats, the 2012 results brought acknowledgements from several CPAC speakers that conservatives and the Republican Party must broaden their appeal.
“Most conservatives took it for granted that after what we considered the dismal state of affairs in America that we were going to walk into the White House,” said Al Cardenas, the Miami lawyer who heads the American Conservative Union, which organized the conference. “After the election we were faced with the stark reality of what I conveyed before the night of the election — that we were too white, too old and too male to win a national election given the demographic realities of today.”
Most CPAC speakers said conservatives shouldn’t apologize for their positions, but should change the way they present them.
“There is no shortage of people telling us what conservatism cannot accomplish, what we can’t do, how we cannot connect, how we must change our values to fit the times,” said former U.S. Rep. Allen West, the conservative firebrand who narrowly lost his re-election bid to Democrat Patrick Murphy in a Palm Beach-Treasure Coast district. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, I want to tell you that that truly is a bunch of malarkey. The last time I checked a bended knee is not, nor shall it ever be, a conservative tradition.”
West, who hasn’t nixed suggestions from his admirers that he run for president in 2016, said conservatives need to emphasize their private charitable giving and volunteering to counter liberal critics who say they lack compassion.
Rubio, a 41-year-old bilingual son of Cuban immigrants, is a key figure in Republican efforts to reach Latinos and younger voters. He has made headlines recently for his efforts to soften the GOP’s hard line on immigration.
Rubio didn’t address demographics or immigration in his speech Thursday. He did check off a variety of important boxes for the GOP base, drawing big applause when he weighed in on marriage and abortion.
“I respect people that disagree with me on certain things, but they have to respect me, too,” Rubio said.
“Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot. Just because we believe that life, all life, all human life is worthy of protection at every stage of its development does not make you a chauvinist,” Rubio said.
“In fact, the people who are actually close-minded in American politics are people that love to preach about the certainty of science with regards to our climate but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception,” Rubio said.
Rubio said conservatives must make their limited-government message appeal to ordinary people who are struggling to get by in the economy. He used the example of a couple he said he knows through his son’s youth football team.
“They’re not freeloaders. They’re not liberals. 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. And they’re desperate,” Rubio said.
“And sometimes when you’re like that, no matter what your principles may be, you’re susceptible to this argument that maybe government is the only thing that can help. And that’s where we have to come in and explain that that’s not true. The first thing they need is an economy, a vast and vibrant economy.”
Rubio has long been the subject of 2016 White House chatter. Bush rejected suggestions that he run for president in 2008 and 2012, but has become part of the 2016 conversation recently while promoting a new book on immigration.
“I’m not saying yes, I’m just not saying no,” Bush told an MSNBC interviewer this month when asked about presidential aspirations.
Bush, who in the past has expressed support for a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally, argues in the new book he co-authored with attorney Clint Bolick that there should be a path to legal status, but not citizenship, for illegal immigrants.
The shift was seen by some as an effort to appeal to conservative Republican primary voters for a potential 2016 run. Since the book’s release, Bush has downplayed differences with Republicans who support some type of pathway to citizenship.
Bush and Rubio are close friends and political allies. Conventional wisdom holds that they wouldn’t both pursue presidential bids.
“I think one of them will be an extremely fine candidate for president, and that’s a great thing for the state of Florida,” said Republican strategist Mike Hanna, a former Bush aide who sported a “Jeb ‘16” sticker at the conference but also lavished praise on Rubio.
“My sense is that either/or will probably run for the White House, but not both,” said Cardenas, an early mentor to Rubio who was state GOP chairman when Bush was governor. “That’s based on a 30-year, 20-some-years friendship with both of them and a true understanding of their relationship and how they get along and the reality that it’s difficult for two folks from the same state with a similar Rolodex to run for the same office.”
“I think it’s healthy right now. It’s good for Florida,” Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry said of the fact that Rubio and Bush are considered 2016 contenders. “They both care about the party, have spent years building the party in Florida, have a lot to contribute to the national stage. So I think it’s all going to be fine in the end. I don’t have any heartburn over any of this.”
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