Marco Rubio, the 38-year-old son of Cuban immigrants and candidate for an open Senate seat in Florida, brought the house down with a powerful speech on American exceptionalism before thousands of conservatives, according to The Washington Post.
In the opening address at the three-day Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington, Rubio delivered a fiery assault on President Obama's economic policies and his administration's handling of national security.
"They are using this downturn as cover, not to fix America but to try and change America, to fundamentally redefine the role of government in our lives and the role of America in the world," Rubio said. "The good news is it didn't take long for the American people to figure this out."
The crowd repeatedly interrupted Rubio's speech with standing ovations. The former Florida House speaker has become a darling of the conservative "tea party" movement during his underdog primary campaign against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, R, for the Senate, and this speech served as his debut on the national stage, according to the Post.
"Every time somebody starts yelling 'Marco,' I'm afraid they are going to be yelling 'Polo,' " Rubio said with a smile, "and that would ruin the speech."
He drew rousing applause and shouts of "Amen!" when he criticized Obama's record on national security.
"We will do whatever it takes, for however long it takes, to defeat radical Islamic terrorism," Rubio said. "We will punish their allies like Iran. We will stand with our allies like Israel. We will target and we will destroy terrorist cells and the leaders of those cells. The ones that survive, we will capture them. We will get useful information from them.
Rubio has risen from obscurity to become a darling of conservative Republicans nationally, exciting a crowd Thursday during his most important speech yet in his effort to defeat Gov. Charlie Crist.
Rubio's warm reception is the culmination of his rise since last summer — when he had little money and drove himself to small Republican gatherings around Florida amid pressure from the party establishment to give up on his Senate hopes. By contrast, Crist was raising nearly $13 for every $1 Rubio raised, had an enormous lead in the polls and was quickly endorsed by top Washington Republicans.
It's a different story now. On Thursday, Rubio was the keynote speaker at the what's considered the most important gathering of conservative activists in the country. People booed when Crist's name was mentioned. Crist was not at the conference.
The 2010 elections will be a referendum on "the very identity of our nation," and the politics of old won't work, Rubio said.
"A long list of early establishment endorsements will not spare you a primary, clever one-line slogans are not going to spare you the need to discuss policy issues in detail, and old, tired political attacks that worked once in the past aren't going to get you elected," Rubio said.
The month before they entered the race, a Quinnipiac poll showed 54 percent of Republican voters supported Crist compared with 8 percent for Rubio. Last month, a Quinnipiac poll showed 47 percent supported Rubio, while 44 percent supported Crist.
Rubio eliminated the lead with a message based on sticking to core Republican principles. He has also criticized Crist's support of the $787 billion federal stimulus package before Congress passed it. The image of Crist hugging Obama at a rally to promote the plan nearly every Washington Republican fought has been used repeatedly in the campaign.
While he didn't mention Crist by name, he distinguished himself from the governor who is known for working with Democrats.
"What people want are leaders who come here to Washington, D.C., and stand up to the big government agenda and not be coopted by it," Rubio said. "If the goal is not to fix America, but to change America, then they want leaders who are going to come up here and fight it every step of the way."
Crist's campaign once virtually ignored Rubio but now criticizes him daily, saying his record, including budget earmarks he approved of while serving as House speaker, isn't as conservative as Rubio says.
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek is the leading Democrat seeking the seat now held by Sen. George LeMieux, whom Crist appointed to fill Mel Martinez' unexpired term.
Before the speech, Rubio was warmly received at a reception for American Conservative Union Foundation board members and conference VIPs. Robert Savino, a New York City lawyer, offered to help Rubio's campaign and said he was exactly what the country needed.
"The first thing I like about him is his commitment to ideas," Savino said. "You get the sense from him that it's not just about politics, it's about ideas."
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