WASHINGTON — If Sen. Marco Rubio runs for president in 2016, it will be possible to look back to a packed room a few blocks from the Capitol on Wednesday as the birthplace of his platform.
For half an hour, wrapping policy details around anecdotes from regular people, the Florida Republican outlined proposals aimed at the middle class, a large swath of the electorate the GOP has had trouble connecting with.
"The great cause of our time is to reclaim the American Dream for more of our people than ever before," Rubio said at a center run by conservative Hillsdale College.
Rubio has spent this year trying to put heft behind his long-regarded oratory skills — and to move beyond the treacherous immigration debate of 2013. His ideas include ways to make college more accessible, foster job skills programs, grow the economy through less regulation and shift anti-poverty funding to states.
On Wednesday, he sought to tie it all together in a self-billed "major address" barely concealed as having ambitions beyond the Senate, a "new policy agenda designed specifically for the 21st Century."
"There was once a time when people like my parents, with limited formal education, could still find jobs that paid enough to make it to the middle class," Rubio said. "But now, because of advances in technology, virtually all good jobs require a level of education beyond high school. But instead of adjusting to the realities of this new era, many of our institutions are failing us — and none more so than our federal government."
He cited the standard Republican objection to higher taxes and regulation and called Obamacare a "disaster." But Rubio was also seeking a different tone and focus. Too often, he said, the GOP is seen as the party of big business.
The approach is part of the growing idea of "reform conservatism."
"Republicans need to offer an alternative, to go beyond simply lamenting and criticizing what President Obama is doing, to offering a conservative alternative to it, including in areas and on issues like higher education, health care and long-term unemployment, which are topics Republicans have traditionally been silent on," said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
As the son of Cuban immigrant parents, 43-year-old Rubio is offering himself as a leader of the movement Wehner and conservative groups like American Enterprise Institute and YG Network have helped cultivate.
Rubio used Florida residents to humanize the ideas. Kristeen, a single mother of two, was used to illustrate an alternative to what Rubio argued, without specifics, are Democratic programs that do not lift people out of poverty. He said he would release legislation with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to allow people who go to school full time to retain a child care tax credit.
He has proposed shifting federal anti-poverty money into a "Flex Fund" states could use to develop their own programs, and he wants to replace the popular Earned Income Tax Credit with a "wage enhancement" to encourage people to work.
Rubio also used Jennifer and Evan from Miami who have struggled with the cost of college to touch on a number of ideas, including making income-based repayment automatic for student loans. He blasted an "entrenched higher education cartel," and said Congress should create an accreditation process for "more innovative and affordable schools."
He pushed an alternative to loans he calls "Student Investment Plans," in which a private firm would pay for the education in return for a percentage of the student's future salary for a set number of years.
He cited the story of small business owners to make the case for an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, though Rubio did not provide much detail other than allowing people to buy insurance from any company they choose. Rubio has called for changes to Social Security and Medicare, though not for current recipients, but also wants to make it easier for those who choose to work longer by eliminating the payroll tax for them.
Research opposition group American Bridge pre-empted Rubio's speech with a list of votes it said show he isn't serious about helping struggling Americans. Rubio, for instance, has voted against deals that would extend unemployment benefits (he says he supports the benefits but wanted the extension paid for) and has opposed increasing the federal minimum wage (he argues it would cost jobs).
Still, the speech was met enthusiastically by conservatives eager to broaden the party's reach.
"For two centuries, this nation has endured as an exceptional one because each generation before us has risen to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of their time. Now it is our turn," Rubio said.
And maybe his.
"It's a very natural set of themes for him because he came out of a working-class background," said Whit Ayres, Rubio's pollster. "I mean, he graduated with $100,000 in student loan debt."