Marco Rubio fires up CPAC

The right's Florida star fires up the annual conservative conference in Washington

Published February 18, 2010 4:19PM (EST)

CPAC, the annual conference for right-wing activists hosted by the American Conservative Union, is a special place. It's the kind of place where you can get a standing ovation for calling to abolish income taxes on interest. The kind of place where you can stand in front of a Teleprompter and mock President Obama for using a Teleprompter, without blinking. And the kind of place where the nation outside the hotel ballroom, America under Obama, may as well be Cuba.

At least that was the message Marco Rubio, the conservative wunderkind who's likely to put Florida Gov. Charlie Crist out to pasture in this year's Senate Republican primary, gave in his keynote speech Thursday morning.

"Do I want my children to grow up in the country that I grew up in?" Rubio asked what must be the largest crowd CPAC has ever assembled. "Or do I want them to grow up in a country like my parents grew up in?" And yes, for those of you scoring at home, that would be Fidel Castro's Cuba.

Rubio's speech alternated between gauzy boilerplate about his working-class immigrant background ("Why did my dreams have the chance that [Rubio's grandfather] didn't? The answer is simple: Because I am privileged. I am privileged to be a citizen of the single greatest society in all of human history"), and paranoid predictions about the nature of the federal government and the people running it. "They have used a severe recession as an excuse to implement the statist policies that they have longed for all this time," Rubio said, smiling coolly. "They are using this downturn as cover, not to fix America but to try to change America." Not surprisingly, for a guy running what started as a longshot insurgent campaign against the GOP's establishment pick, Rubio didn't limit his fire to the Socialists Democrats in Washington. "The U.S. Senate already has one Arlen Specter too many," he said. "America already has a Democrat Party, it doesn't need two Democrat Parties." For that matter, the 2010 elections won't even just be a contest between Democrats and Republicans: "It's not just a choice between liberals and conservatives, 2010 is a referendum on the very identity of our nation."

But for all the dreaminess associated with Rubio's capaign in the conservative world, his policy prescriptions were the same old stuff audiences at CPAC have lapped up for more than 30 years. Cut taxes on the ways rich people make money, like interest, dividends and capital gains (and, of course, the estate tax). Roll back corporate taxes. Let "the American innovator" take care of things like climate change. Cut federal spending at home, and throw a few more dangerous Muslims in prison at Guantánamo from overseas.

It didn't matter, though. Rubio left the room to a hero's ovation, and his chief political patron in Washington, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, told the crowd afterwards he'd rather have 30 Rubios with him in the Senate than 60 Specters. (It's shaping up to be a tough few weeks for Specter, who wasn't popular with CPAC types even before he flipped to the Democrats.) "Marco! Marco!" people chanted as he walked out. And as everyone sat down again, after applauding their new champion, they found -- on every seat in the massive hotel ballroom -- an envelope to send money to Rubio's campaign. Florida may not have Crist to kick around much longer. But Rubio looks like he could be here for a while.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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