NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Sen. Marco Rubio called for an assertive U.S. foreign policy during a speech to conservative activists Thursday, sticking to a topic that has recently brought him new prominence and helped rebuild his image with the GOP base.
"Quite frankly, we would much rather just focus on our lives here," the Florida Republican said at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington, D.C. "But we cannot ignore the reality of who we are. We cannot ignore the global importance of this nation. And we cannot ignore the implications to our future if we fail to step up to this call."
Painting a grim picture of world developments from a more bullish China to rocket development in North Korea to unrest in Venezuela, Rubio said the United States has an obligation to remain engaged.
"There is only one nation on earth capable of rallying and bringing together the free people on this planet to stand up to the spread of totalitarianism," he said.
But Rubio, whose hawkish views stand in contrast to a resurgent isolationist strain in his party, added: "That doesn't mean that we're going to be involved in 15 wars, or that American foreign policy needs to involve armed conflict at every corner of the planet."
He mocked President Barack Obama, saying that the president thought he could shape global events "by the sheer force of his personality."
The well-received speech comes as Rubio, 42, has worked to recover from his involvement in comprehensive immigration reform. Conservatives turned against him last year and Rubio has distanced himself from the bill he helped write, focusing on other issues, including ideas aimed at the poor.
New challenges involving foreign policy have given Rubio the best footing. The violence in Venezuela and the crisis in Ukraine have allowed Rubio to strike a hawkish posture, and he has regained some standing with conservatives, who are searching for a standout presidential candidate in 2016.
"He's a key player, no doubt about it," said Thomas Novelly, 18, a student at Hillsdale College in Michigan, who attended the conference. "Every time I hear him, he makes me proud to be a conservative."
But Novelly, and his friend, Conner Dwinell, said they were disappointed with Rubio on immigration.
"It has the ability to rear its ugly head again," Dwinell said.
Rubio closed his speech by talking about his 2010 Senate race against Charlie Crist (who was mentioned by speakers several times Thursday, drawing requisite booing) and told of how his father, a Cuban immigrant who died of cancer during the election, represented the American dream.
In another time, Rubio would have used his family story as an argument for immigration reform. But he made no mention of the issue Thursday.
"I wish he wouldn't have gotten involved in immigration," said Kim Grant, 58, of Cincinnati, adding she teared up with Rubio's closing. "But let's face it: It's an issue. We can't judge them for taking a stand if they do it for the right reasons. I'm going to look at the whole picture."