NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—The organizers of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference tossed political junkies a taste of premium-grade smack Thursday when they scheduled back-to-back speeches by Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio—two young Republicans who offered their own visions for the party.
Although Paul and Rubio agree on several things, they represent separate strands of the Republican Party. Paul embodies the more libertarian wing, which places a heavy emphasize on curtailing executive power. Rubio has set his sites on defending a traditional values agenda while focusing on policies that promote small business.
Both men, however, see a need for the party to extend its message to new constituencies, particularly minorities who traditionally support the Democratic Party.
The two junior senators, who joined the chamber together in 2010, are considered bright lights with promising futures in the party. Neither has denied interest in running for president in 2016. (Paul has said he's "seriously" considering it.) For a party desperately seeking a fresh face with bold ideas to lead them, these dueling speeches before the largest annual conservative conference gave the party faithful an early look at who could be players in the Republican primary field.
In recent months, both Rubio and Paul have been thrust into the spotlight. Rubio, in January, joined a bipartisan group of eight senators in unveiling a blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform, putting him at the center of what could become one of the most important policy debates in Washington this year. He was also chosen by the party to deliver the official GOP response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in February.
Last week, Paul captured the GOP's attention (and widespread support) when he spoke for 13 straight hours on the Senate floor in protest of Obama's controversial drone program.
At CPAC Thursday, Rubio spoke first, delivering a wide-ranging message that focused on several red-meat issues for the thousands of conservative activists at the conference. He urged them not to stray from principles and emphasized the need to explain Republican ideas to working-class Americans.
In one of his most passionate moments at the lectern, Rubio defended Republican opposition to gay marriage and abortion, two topics some have urged the party to avoid.
"Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot," Rubio said. "Just because we believe that life—all life, all human life—is worthy of protection at every stage of development does not make you a chauvinist."
Although Rubio called on Republicans to direct their message to the middle class to help shed the stereotype that they're the party that defends the rich, he concluded by urging them to refrain from abandoning long-held principles when striving to reach new voters.
"As soon as I'm done speaking, I'll tell you what the criticism of the left is going to be. No. 1, that he drank too much water," Rubio said, joking about his awkward water grab while delivering his response to Obama's State of the Union. "No. 2, that he didn't offer any new ideas. And there's the fallacy of it. We don't need a new idea. There is an idea, the idea's called America. And it still works."
The end of Rubio's speech was met with a standing ovation, immediately followed by Paul's address.
Paul, the son of the anti-war Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, largely kept his remarks focused on a single issue: limiting presidential power. Still riding high from the attention he received from his filibuster, Paul boasted that he was skipping a lunch with Obama that day to address the conference, and said he had a message for the president "that doesn't mince words." At that moment, a man in the audience shouted, "Don't drone me, bro!"
"That's not exactly what I was thinking," Paul said, laughing. "However, I think you may have distilled my 13-hour speech into three words. The message for the president is that no one person gets to decide the law."
Similar to Rubio, Paul shared his vision for the future of the GOP, one that emphasized "liberty," and had some sharp words for some of his fellow Republicans, who he said had allowed the party to go "stale."
"The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered," Paul said. "I don't think we need to name any names, do we? Our party is encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom. The new GOP will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere. If we're going to have a Republican Party that wins, liberty needs to be the backbone of the GOP."
For many, the speeches were the first side-by-side look at Rubio and Paul. Later in the week, CPAC organizers will announce the results of a conference-wide presidential straw poll that has both of their names on the ballot. The results won't be scientific by any means, but they will shine a speck of light on which vision of the future these conservative activists prefer for their party.