Ten months ago, I watched Marco Rubio deliver a talk on America's Cuba policy to about 50 college students at George Washington University. A month out from declaring his bid for the Senate, not many of the GW students (or Floridians for that matter) knew who Rubio was. One poll at the time showed Rubio trailing Charlie Crist 54% to 8%. About 80% of voters didn't know enough about Rubio to have an opinion of him. But when Rubio finished speaking that night last April, the students really liked what they saw. "I think we just saw the future president of the United States!" one student exclaimed.
Now, the circumstances of his speech this morning at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., were much different. Rubio's been featured on the cover of the New York Times magazine, and as Floridians have gotten to know him, he's turned a 40-point deficit into a 10-point lead. Those who attended Rubio's speech this morning were already his fans, but they hadn't seen him speak in person before. He didn't fail to impress.
Rubio managed to be serious yet cheerful and affable when articulating his beliefs about American greatness, and the threat posed to it by those running Washington. "Even today with the problems we face, who would you rather be? Which country would you trade places with?" Rubio asked. "When is the last time you heard news accounts of American refugees arriving on the shores of another country?"
Rubio hit his rhetorical stride when discussing American exceptionalism and his family that had been exiled from Cuba. Unlike his Cuban grandfather, Rubio said, he had the opportunity to achieve his dreams because "I am privileged to be a citizen of the single greatest society in all of human history."
"There's never been a nation like the United States, ever. It begins with the principles of our Founding documents; principles that recognize that our rights come from God not from government; principles that recognize that because all of us are equal in the eyes of our Creator, all life is sacred at every stage of life. These principles embody a commitment to individual liberty which has made us the freest people in history. It ulimately made possible the free enterprise economy which made us the most prosperous people in history."
At times, Rubio may have overreached, saying, for example, that America is the "only" country where the poor can compete and succeed against the rich in the marketplace. But who's to quibble when one is waxing patriotic?
Rubio spoke out against the "guardian class of American government to protect us from ourselves." Americans want leaders to come to Washington to "get things done," Rubio acknowledged, "but that comes with a very important caveat: it depends what they're trying to do."
Rubio called for tax reform, controlling the budget, a "series of simple changes that puts the American consumer in charge of health care spending," and defeating radical Islam. "We will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to defeat radical Islamic terrorism," he said. "We will punish their allies like Iran and we will stand with our allies like Israel."
Rubio said of terrorists who aren't killed: "We will capture them, we will get useful information from them, and then we will bring them to justice in front of a military tribunal in Guantanamo"--the crowd roared--"not a civilian court room in Manhattan. And of course, Rubio also had the requisite number of red meat lines--one Arlen Specter in the Senate is too many, etc.--to please the conservative crowd.
All in all, a good day for Rubio, who solidified his role as an up and coming conservative leader.