TAMPA — Sen. Marco Rubio's efforts to reform immigration may be drawing skepticism from many conservatives. But scandals facing the White House have allowed him to shift his message back to the one that made him a star in the first place: The threat to America posed by excessive government.
Rubio captivated more than 700 people at the Hillsborough GOP's annual Lincoln Day Dinner on Saturday night with a familiar speech that resonated more strongly than ever amid revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups, the U.S. Department of Justice spied on Associated Press reporters, and administration staff carefully calibrated their explanations of the Benghazi attack.
"What we've seen in the last seven or eight days have really shaken me," Rubio said. "History teaches us that when government is too large and too powerful, no matter who's in charge, it will lead to abuses."
He alluded to the IRS, AP and Benghazi controversies, but in a departure from his recent blistering public criticism of the Obama administration and IRS, Rubio spoke mostly in broad strokes about the unique nature of America and how no one should take it for granted.
He said the Obama administration "created a culture of politics that led to this" by demonizing people with whom it disagrees, painting them as not just wrong but bad.
"When you create that culture in your government, it's going to impact the people that work in it," Rubio said.
Florida's junior senator has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the administration over the IRS controversy. That message has helped him shift attention, at least temporarily, away from immigration reform, something that had damaged his image with some conservatives.
Rubio told guests at the Hillsborough GOP dinner he had intended to discuss immigration at length, but decided to shift gears given the recent developments in Washington.
The speech differed little from his standard 2010 stump speech, when he defied the odds to win his U.S. Senate seat and in the process knock Gov. Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party.
The audience loved it nonetheless.
"We are watching the growth of the greatest messenger that American exceptionalism has ever known," said Hillsborough Republican Chairman and state Sen. Tom Lee.
"Marco is moving from being a Republican leader to an American leader," gushed Republican consultant Adam Goodman of Tampa.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org