WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio followed the axiom "know your audience" to effect with a speech Thursday that was laced with sharper barbs than he typically serves up.
With a rapt Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) audience at his command, Rubio poked fun at "liberals," warned against listening to the media, bashed comments by a U.S. Supreme Court justice, and fired at President Barack Obama.
"The greatest thing that we can do for the world is be America," Rubio said. "That's what's at stake here … that's what November will be about. The president of the United States looks like he's a really good father. Looks like he's a really good husband. But he is a terrible president."
He asserted that Obama has no record to run on and was pitting Americans against each other (rich vs. poor, for example) as part of a "calculated effort" to win re-election.
The Florida Republican incorporated the new nuggets into his standard speech about the American dream, exceptionalism and less government regulation. That speech on it own, drawing from his Cuban-American roots, moves crowds alone but the CPAC crowd represents some of the most ardent conservatives and Rubio took it up a notch.
"How come liberals never admit that they're liberal?" he asked. "They've now come up with a new word called 'progressive,' which I thought was an insurance company but apparently it's a label." He warned the audience not to be convinced by the media that the Republican presidential primary was dragging down the GOP. "At the end, we're all going to come together, and we know that, right?" said Rubio.
The crowd loved Rubio, who appeared here two years ago when he was still little known on the national stage. Now he is constantly speculated about as a vice presidential candidate. But some of his biggest fans see bigger things. Al Cardenas, who helped Rubio get his political start years ago and now heads CPAC, introduced the Florida Republican as "a true national hero."
"Someone who I know I'm going to say hello to at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue some day," Cardenas said.
One topic that did not come up: immigration. But the bind Rubio finds himself in on the issue was on display. Outside the conference, a Hispanic advocacy group protested Rubio's hard-line stance on illegal immigration. Inside, someone was circulating fliers asking if Rubio has gone soft on immigration, a nod to his calls for less heated rhetoric.
"Senator Marco Rubio, elected to the Senate with strong conservative support, gave a keynote speech at the Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Miami on January 27, 2012, in which he made a number of statements, raising questions about whether he's distancing himself from his previous opposition to amnesty for illegals," the flier read.
Rubio says he still opposed the Dream Act but suggested Wednesday he could be open to granting some legal status to children of illegal immigrants who serve in the military. He cautioned, however, that he had not seen the bill language.