A trio of rising Senate Republican stars – Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Tim Scott of South Carolina – rallied thousands of conservative activists Thursday in rousing speeches that signaled a passing of the torch to a younger, more diverse group of party leaders focused on winning back the White House.
With the Republican Party seeking to expand its reach among voters, Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, addressed the annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Conference as the early leader in the 2016 GOP presidential race, while Scott spoke as the first black Republican senator from the South since Reconstruction.
Paul appeared at the conclave on the heels of his 13-hour Senate filibuster last week to protest President Barack Obama’s initial refusal to rule out using drones to target suspected terrorists on American soil.
Rubio, a charismatic first-term senator, took the stage to a standing ovation from the huge audience at the Gaylord hotel, across the Potomac River from the U.S. Capitol.
Dismissing “all this debate about infighting among conservatives” as exaggerated “foolish nonsense,” Rubio said core conservative principles had widespread appeal.
“Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot,” he said. “Just because we believe that all human life is worthy of protection at all stages of development does not make you a chauvinist.”
Rubio mocked those who accuse climate-change skeptics of denying science but ignore “the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception.”
Rubio brought the crowd to its feet again as he ridiculed critics who claim the Republican Party has no new ideas.
“We don’t need a new idea,” Rubio declared to loud cheers. “There is an idea. The idea’s called America, and it still works.”
Conspicuously absent from Rubio’s speech was any mention of his leading role in a new bipartisan push in Congress for immigration restructuring, a controversial cause that many hard-line conservatives oppose.
Fresh from his high-profile filibuster against drone policy, Paul received a campaign-style welcome, with dozens of fans standing and waving red “Stand With Rand” posters.
Paul was more confrontational than Rubio in challenging his party to change and saying Republicans have fallen out of step with many Americans.
“The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” Paul said. “Our party is encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom. The new GOP will have to embrace liberty in both the economic and personal sphere.”
While Paul said his filibuster was aimed at Obama’s alleged overreach of presidential power, the Kentuckian expressed the broader libertarian view that the war on terrorism in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has threatened Americans’ freedoms through expanded federal surveillance.
“If we destroy our enemy but lose what defines our freedom in the process, have we really won?” Paul asked. “If we allow one man to charge Americans as enemy combatants and indefinitely detain or drone them, then what exactly is it that our brave young men and women are fighting for?”
Scott, whom Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley appointed to replace former Sen. Jim DeMint after his surprise retirement in January to head the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington research center, mixed homespun accounts of his rise from childhood poverty with denunciations of Obama’s health insurance law and economic policies.
“Obamacare is an atrocity,” Scott said. “We’re talking about $800 billion in new taxes. This is awful legislation.”
Decrying the current budget impasse, Scott said, “With a $16 trillion debt and annual deficits of $1 trillion, we have to bring fiscal sanity back to Washington, D.C.”
Paul, the son of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas, is the oldest of the three first-term senators at 50. Scott is 47, while Rubio is 41.
Paul has said he’s weighing a 2016 presidential run, while Rubio has done nothing to discourage widespread depictions of him as the early Republican front-runner.
In his speech Thursday to the conservative activists, Rubio appeared to try to distinguish himself from 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The Floridian repeatedly defended “hardworking Americans,” who he said “are not freeloaders,” an apparent reference to Romney’s secretly recorded dismissal of 47 percent of voters “who believe that they are victims” and think government should take care of them.
Rubio, warning that China wants to become the world’s dominant power, took aim at the more isolationist foreign policies that Paul and other libertarian politicians have backed in criticizing expensive U.S. entanglements in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
“We can’t be involved in every armed conflict, but we also can’t be retreating from the world,” Rubio said.
Chris Addington, who’d traveled from New Hampshire to attend the gathering, praised both senators’ speeches but said he’d back Rubio over Paul for president.
“They’re both dynamic, but I would lean toward Sen. Rubio,” Addington said. “I think he probably has more of a broader base and would bring more Latinos in because of his approach on immigration reform. I haven’t heard Sen. Paul talk much about that. I’m interested in winning, and I think Rubio has a better chance to win.”
This story was originally published March 14, 2013 5:53 PM.