WASHINGTON — Pity U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.
The Ohio Republican gave a well-received speech before religious conservatives here that showed off a statesmanly command of the issues that has made him a top choice for running mate to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
He drew laughs for a riff on "the private sector is doing fine" remark President Barack Obama made last week, saying, "He needs to get out more."
Only problem was Portman was followed by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another VP shortlister.
For 21 minutes, Rubio charmed, engaged and generally wowed his audience with a sweeping take on the country's origins and future, a defense of religion in politics and sharp criticism of Democrats.
"We're not just blessed so that we can have. We're blessed so we can give. And the greatest thing we can give the world is the American example," Rubio said. "The world is coming in our direction, why would we ever head the other way?"
If Rubio, 41, and Portman, 56, are in competition, the Faith & Freedom Coalition crowd assembled at the Renaissance hotel for the start of a three-day conference decided it easily.
"They're both very qualified but the energy is with Marco Rubio," said Leonard Neuringer, 62, of New Jersey. "He has the charisma that many people are looking for in a leader, he has the values, he has the understanding."
"I find him unbelievably brilliant and inspiring," said Barbara Delo, 59 of New York, who stood at a table to buy an advance copy of Rubio's autobiography, An American Son, which is out Tuesday.
Rubio spoke more of religion than he usually does in speeches, saying the founding principles of the country revolved around faith.
"If you live in a society that has no faith, if you live in a society that teaches or encourages the belief that there is no God, well then, what's the source of your rights? If there is no creator, well then, what's the source of your liberty? A piece of paper, the eloquent writings of people 230 some odd years ago?"
He sounded a partisan note, too, accusing "one side of the political equation" of espousing a big government prescription for prosperity.
"They say things that are deeply divisive, by design. They tell our fellow Americans that the reasons they are worse off is because others are doing too well, that the way to protect your job is to raise your boss' taxes."
Rubio laced the seriousness of his address with jokes, ribbing Faith & Freedom Coalition leader Ralph Reed, whose parents attended the University of Florida, for going to the University of Georgia: "I always tell people that the American Dream is your kids can grow up to have a better life than you did, but it's not a guarantee."
Portman's attempts at humor were more subdued, his speech far more dry, delivered monotone. The former Bush administration official and congressman-turned-senator told an emotional story about returning home to be with his mother as she dealt with (and died from) cancer.
Reporters swarmed him after the speech and asked whether he had provided any documents to the Romney campaign for a vetting process.
"I hate to be boring," Portman said, "but I just don't talk about that."