WASHINGTON — Marco Rubio wowed a crowd of influential activists here Thursday, criticizing his U.S. Senate primary rival — Gov. Charlie Crist — without mentioning him by name, and promising not to compromise his conservative principles for political expediency.
The Conservative Political Action Conference crowd greeted the onetime long shot warmly, rising for several standing ovations and, at one point, threatening to interrupt his speech by chanting his name.
"That 'Marco' cheer always worries me because I'm afraid someone is going to start cheering 'Polo,' and it will ruin the speech," Rubio said, laughing.
Outside the hall, he was hailed as a savior of the party — a turnaround for a candidate who a year ago was viewed as a longshot in the Senate race to replace retired Sen. Mel Martinez.
Rubio delivered a speech rich with conservative hot buttons — cutting taxes, trying terrorists in military tribunals — and his Cuban-born parents' struggles to provide for their children.
He warned that Democrats are trying to "fundamentally redefine the role of government in our lives and the role of America in the world'' and he suggested he wouldn't always be open to compromise.
While Americans want politicians in Washington to work together, he said, "that comes with a very important caveat: it depends on what they're trying to do.
"America already has a Democrat party, it doesn't need two Democrat parties," he said. "If the goal is to abandon America's free enterprise economy, if the goal is to convert America into a submissive member of the international community … then they (the American people) want leaders who are going to come up here and fight it every step of the way."
And, in an apparent reference to Crist, whom some GOPers consider too moderate, he added: "After all the U.S. Senate already has one Arlen Specter too many."
Crist's campaign shot back, drawing an apparent parallel with President Barack Obama and suggesting Rubio was all talk.
"In the past year, we have all seen the results of allowing a candidate to hide his record behind the veil of a good speech while touting his so-called ideals," said Crist spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "While Speaker Rubio claims he will not be co-opted by big government, his record as a Miami lobbyist while simultaneously serving in the Legislature demonstrates he is willing to be co-opted by much worse."
Rubio was introduced by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the only senator with a 100 percent rating from the group, according to David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC.
DeMint, one of the first national conservatives to endorse Rubio, noted his backing came after the National Republican Senatorial Committee appeared "giddy'' over its endorsement of Crist — whose name drew a chorus of boos from the crowd.
"The Washington establishment laughed it off," DeMint said of his support for Rubio. "Well they're not laughing now."