NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—As conservatives continue to rebuild in the aftermath of last November’s election losses, two rising Republican stars headlined the opening day of the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky shared the spotlight Thursday at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just outside of Washington, representing a new generation of GOP leadership and delivering back-to-back midday speeches that were easily the most-watched addresses of the day.
The two freshman senators took drastically different approaches: Rubio touched on a variety of traditional values in what sounded like a 15-minute stump speech, while Paul pivoted off his nearly 13-hour filibuster last week to talk mostly about freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution.
Paul, who staged a rare talking filibuster on March 6 to stall the confirmation of new CIA Director John Brennan, reiterated Thursday that his marathon Senate speech was not about Brennan or even drone strikes, which he spent most of his filibuster discussing, but was instead about limits to presidential power.
“To those who would dismiss this debate as frivolous, tell that to our brave men and women who risk limbs and lives,” Paul said. “Tell them the Bill of Rights is no big deal.”
Paul’s filibuster thrust him into the national spotlight and may have served to help invigorate the Republican Party. Conservatives, including Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rubio, and others, joined Paul in speaking on the Senate floor that day, and a group of House Republicans also came to the upper chamber to stand in solidarity.
On Thursday almost half the CPAC attendees—many holding “Stand with Rand” signs—stood for the entirety of Paul’s 20-minute speech, which was more tame than Rubio’s directly before him. Rubio showed a much more charismatic side than the tepid Republican response he delivered last month after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
Rubio voiced support for traditional marriage, school choice, and limited government, but his biggest cheer came when he affirmed his pro-life views: “The people who are actually close-minded in American politics are the people that love to preach about the certainty of science in regards to our climate, but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception.”
Immigration reform was notably absent from Rubio’s speech, although the 41-year-old is a key leader in the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” working to craft comprehensive plan for dealing with the issue. (Earlier in the day, Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, a Tea Party favorite, told CPAC attendees that immigration reform would come out of the House first: “You’re going to see that soon.”)
Paul used his speech to renew calls to end foreign aid to countries such as Egypt, noting that the Obama administration has suspended White House tours but has found $250 million to send to the Muslim Brotherhood-led country. He said that “not one more penny” should go to countries that burn the American flag.
Both Paul and Rubio are among 23 potential GOP presidential candidates in the CPAC 2016 straw poll. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, neither of whom were invited to the conference, are on the list, but former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is not a part of the poll. Bush will speak at the event on Friday, but his spokeswoman told CNN he asked to be withheld from the poll because it is too early to think about the 2016 election.
CPAC will continue through Saturday.