NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — With presidential speculation swirling around him — and a surging potential rival at his heels — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio told a gathering of conservatives Thursday that the GOP does not need to search for new ideas.
"We don't need a new idea. There is an idea, the idea is called America, and it still works," Rubio said, eliciting roaring applause at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual event that draws thousands of activists to the Washington, D.C., area.
Rubio was immediately followed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has become a favorite of conservatives and was greeted with the same electricity. Comparisons were inevitably tied to the 2016 presidential race, with each man appealing to rally support as the face of a younger, more relevant GOP.
"The GOP of old has become stale and moss-covered," Paul said. "I don't think we need to name any names."
But while they had different approaches — "The Republican Party has to change," Paul said, seeming to contradict Rubio — their underlying message was that bedrock Republican principles of less regulation, taxes and smaller government are the way forward.
If not selling a new idea, Rubio was certainly pitching a new approach. He focused largely on middle-class concerns, a theme he has turned to repeatedly since the November election.
"They wonder who's fighting for them," Rubio said. "Who's fighting for the hard-working, everyday people of this country who do things right, who do not complain, that have built this nation and have made it exceptional. And as conservative believers of limited government and free enterprise that is both our challenge and opportunity — to be their voice."
Rubio railed against tax increases, called for school choice and vocational education. "Why aren't we graduating more kids not just with a high school diploma but with an industry certification and a career, a real middle-class career?"
The speech was notable for what Rubio did not talk about: immigration. He is one of eight senators producing a bipartisan bill but one of its chief components — a path to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented residents — is unpopular among many conservatives.
Rubio defended conservative thought, saying he was not a "bigot" for thinking states should have the right to define marriage in a "traditional" way. (Rubio does not, however, support a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage.)
"The people who are actually closed-minded in American politics are the people who love to preach about the certainty of science in regards to our climate but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception," Rubio said to sustained applause.
He also laid out a fundamental difference between him and Paul over the role of the U.S. military abroad. "We can't solve every war. We can't be involved in every armed conflict," Rubio said. "But we also can't be retreating from the world," he said, a knock to isolationists such as Paul who say the budget cannot sustain such spending.
Paul, 50, has emerged as a populist favorite, feeding off his recent 13-hour filibuster of an Obama administration nominee as a protest over the use of drones. "I also came with a message, a message for the president, a message that is loud and clear, a message that doesn't mince words," Paul said.
"Don't drone me, bro," someone shouted.
The thrust of Paul's speech, delivered with far less flair than Rubio, was devoted to constitutional limits. "The question to the president was about more than just killing Americans on America soil," he said. "My question was about whether presidential power has limits."
Having already signaled he is interested in running for president in 2016, Paul was in unmistakable candidate mode, saying he was fighting for the "Facebook generation," that doubts Social Security will be around and worries about jobs and debt.
"I will stand for our prosperity and our freedom," he said, during his close. "And I ask everyone who values liberty to stand with me."
In the audience, dozens of people held up signs that read "Stand with Rand."
The back-to-back speeches were the most watched of the first day of the conference, which runs through Saturday and features a straw poll. Attendees — and the media — were denied a showdown between Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who asked not to be included on the ballot.