By Cameron Joseph - 03/13/13 12:12 AM EDT
Two of the GOP’s fastest-rising stars will face conservative activists Thursday afternoon in back-to-back speeches that could help them cement support for a potential presidential bid.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will speak to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference at 1:15 p.m. on the event’s opening day. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will follow 15 minutes later.
The spotlight could shine a little brighter on Paul, who is riding high following his filibuster of President Obama’s choice for CIA director over the administration’s drone policy.
The high-profile speech gives him a chance to further expand his base beyond the hardcore political libertarians who idolize his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), and showcase him as a serious player for the 2016 GOP presidential sweepstakes.
Rubio, whose 2010 CPAC speech helped vault him to national stardom among Republicans, is already one of the heroes of the conservative movement.
But Thursday’s speech will be Rubio’s first high-profile outing since his famous dry-mouthed State of the Union response, and it marks an opportunity for him to refocus attention on what he has to say, rather than the way he says it.
“We’re looking for someone that’s going to fight, who has vision, courage and the right mix of skills to sell conservatism to a broader audience. There is shaping up a Rubio-Rand Paul dynamic at the moment,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.
“I think Rand Paul is going to get the biggest opening ovation of anyone given recent events. But the big question is: Who gets the biggest ovation at the end, who gets the right message?”
Spokesmen for both Rubio and Paul said the senators were still writing their speeches as of Tuesday afternoon and declined to discuss their content.
For Paul, the stakes are higher.
His filibuster, which lasted nearly 13 hours, drew widespread support, from Rubio to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Having piqued the interest of conservatives who might not earlier have considered him presidential material, strategists say Paul now needs to demonstrate appeal across a wider range of issues.
“Paul has more riding on it — he needs to continue his mainstreaming into the party,” said GOP strategist Mark Harris, who in 2010 as now-Sen. Pat
Toomey’s (R-Pa.) campaign manager helped him win support among both Tea Party and establishment Republicans.
“He needs to continue the momentum and show he’s in the mainstream of the conservative movement.”
Paul’s 2012 CPAC speech was well-received (and his father won the CPAC straw poll multiple times). But last week’s filibuster was the first time many conservatives had the chance to evaluate the younger Paul as his own man, rather than a surrogate for his father.
His deft choice to focus on drone attacks against Americans, an issue popular with civil libertarians and within the political mainstream, showed he has the ability to appeal to his father’s supporters without alienating other conservatives.
But on other foreign policy issues, like Israel and Iran, Paul is in a tougher spot.
If he massages areas of disagreement and focuses on the areas where he’s firmly in agreement with the conservative movement — such as spending, taxes and support for small government — he could persuade more mainstream Republican thought leaders that he has the makings of a serious presidential aspirant.
He’s tried to do so in the past. Paul notably focused his 2012 CPAC speech on attacking Obama rather than touting his father’s presidential campaign. He has also pointedly avoided his father’s tendencies to antagonize other conservatives over areas where they disagree.
For Rubio, the biggest question is what he chooses to emphasize at CPAC.
He has been heavily invested in immigration reform — politically dangerous territory for conservatives — and hasn’t shied away from talking about it in interviews.
But in his high-profile speeches, he has mostly focused on pocketbook issues and aspirational middle-class rhetoric — safer topics for him to address with the party faithful.
“His challenge is, what do you do about the stuff he’s doing on immigration? Do you take the bull by the horns and make that the focus of the speech, or do you sidestep it or work it in a little bit? How he handles the immigration issue in speech will be interesting,” Harris said.
“Rubio needs to show some heft. He has a great personal story and the background to run, but he needs to show ‘here are some issues I really care about, I can lead on, here’s why I should be a presidential candidate.’”
Rubio’s last big political moment — delivering the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union speech — was best remembered for his labored delivery and an awkward off-camera lunge for a bottle of water.
Rubio handled the fallout deftly. But he’d been the undisputed golden boy of the party at the time, and the slip took some of the shine off his reputation.
CPAC should offer a friendlier setting. A source close to Rubio said CPAC is not only political for the senator — it’s personal.
“It is really important to Marco — he looks at that speech several years ago as a moment where he started to really get some notice,” said the source. “It was a meaningful period for him.”