By Keith Laing
The News Service of Florida
The eyes of national conservative activists – and the Washington, D.C. media – turned firmly on former House Speaker Marco Rubio Thursday, solidifying the charismatic Miami Republican’s transition from quixotic U.S. Senate candidate to darling of the grassroots conservative movement.
And in his first major speech since drawing even with Gov. Charlie Crist in the U.S. Senate race, Rubio turned the screws to the man once thought to be a sure shot to beat him for he Republican nomination.
Delivering the keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to a friendly audience in Washington, D.C., Rubio compared Crist to Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched parties this year in the face of a tough Republican primary.
“People want leaders that will come here to Washington, DC and stand up to this big government, not to be co-opted,” Rubio said to cheers. “After all, the U.S. Senate already has one Arlen Specter too many. And after all, America already has a Democrat Party. It doesn’t need two Democrat Parties.”
Speaking to a group that calls its yearly meeting the “largest annual gathering of conservatives,” Rubio highlighted his outsider status in the race with Crist, a status once thought to be the reason he would not be able to win the race between them.
But the political world has changed since the election of President Barack Obama, Rubio said, and “a long list of early, establishment endorsements aren’t going to spare you a primary.”
The CPAC address was the latest in a groundswell of national attention for Rubio, who has been called by some the Republican version of President Barack Obama – a minority candidate who is new to the country’s political scene, charismatic and running against his party’s establishment. As the race with Crist has tightened, Rubio has drawn attention from the New York Times Magazine, National Review, and conservative commentator George Will.
He was also feted Thursday by other CPAC speakers, including South Carolina U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, who also turned to Specter to praise Rubio.
“I’ve been criticized by some of my Republican colleagues for saying I’d rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in the principles of freedom than 60 who don’t believe in anything,” DeMint said during his CPAC speech. “Let me make myself even clearer: I’d rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters.”
Rubio’s speech was not as warmly received by Gov. Crist’s Senate campaign, which has tried to contrast Rubio’s campaign speeches with his tenure as Speaker of the Florida House. Crist’s campaign compared Rubio rising national prominence to Obama, who was persona non-grata at CPAC, 2008 campaign.
“In the past year, we have all seen the results of allowing a candidate to hide his record behind the veil of a good speech while touting his so-called ideals,” Crist’s campaign communications director Andrea Saul said in a statement. “While Speaker Rubio claims he will not be co-opted by big government, his record as a Miami lobbyist while simultaneously serving in the legislature demonstrates he is willing to be co-opted by much worse.”
State Democrats criticized the speech too, saying Rubio’s burgeoning popularity with the Republican base did not mean he should replace retiring U.S. Sen. George LeMieux.
“While Marco Rubio may be succeeding in winning the heart and soul of the Republican Party, Speaker Rubio clearly has no new ideas to bring jobs to Florida or get our state back on track,” Florida Democratic Party spokesman Erik Jotkoff said in a statement. “While Speaker Rubio continues to offer only Tea Party talking points, Floridians are looking for real solutions to jump start our economy.”
Washington Democrats were not any more charitable, saying that Rubio’s staunch conservative rhetoric at CPAC would not be received as well in Florida.
“Instead of offering solutions to the economic problems facing Floridians, Marco Rubio spent his 30 minute speech re-hashing the same old, worn-out Republican talking points that led to economic collapse in the first place,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Eric Schultz said in a statement. “Once back in Florida, Rubio has a number of questions to address, including if he still thinks global warming is a hoax, if he continues to favor privatizing Social Security, if he still has doubts President Obama was born in the United States, and if he continues to stand by his embattled former handpicked budget chief Ray Sansom, who is now facing serious criminal charges for official misconduct.”