NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — In today's conservative movement, there’s room for second acts.
The search for redemption — and the possibility of forgiveness — was on full display here on Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where a lineup of possible future Republican presidential contenders paraded their strengths in front of more than a thousand right-wing activists. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz kicked off the morning with a punchy, one-liner-heavy address. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan embraced the disunity within the Republican Party as a “family reunion.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal questioned the intelligence of the U.S. president. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called on Republicans to be more aggressive (like him!). And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio showed off his foreign policy chops.
For Christie and Rubio, especially, there were lingering questions about how warmly conferencegoers would welcome them at the nation's foremost convention of conservatives.
Both have had a tumultuous relationship with the movement. Ever since Rubio joined forces with moderate Republican Sen. John McCain and liberal Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Dick Durbin to pass a comprehensive immigration package in 2013, conservatives have expressed suspicion about the junior senator from Florida. Despite efforts to argue the case for immigration reform on right-wing radio and other conservative media outlets, the rejection of Rubio by conservatives was swift and strong. Their opposition to him became so fierce that in 2013, Rubio found himself booed and heckled by fellow Republicans in his home state.
Christie faced his own backlash after the 2012 presidential election after he praised President Barack Obama’s management and reaction to a devastating superstorm that struck the Northeast coast just days before voters went to the polls.
Last year the American Conservative Union, the group that organizes the annual CPAC event, snubbed Christie and did not invite him to the annual meeting.
Just as it seemed that he would recover, an investigation in New Jersey uncovered documents showing that in 2013, members of Christie’s staff had intentionally closed off access to a major thoroughfare in New Jersey as an act of political retribution against a Democratic mayor.
Political obituaries have been written about both Rubio and Christie.
But among the party faithful, rumors of their demise seem premature.
On Thursday, Christie and Rubio received warm and rousing welcomes from conservative activists looking to get an early look at their possible future presidential options on Thursday.
Christie didn’t mention the “Bridge-gate” scandal that has haunted him for much of the new year. In Rubio’s speech, the Floridian didn’t touch immigration. Both, it appears, are looking to move on and define their own futures by other means. And Republicans seem willing to let them.
Instead of dwelling on the past, Christie emphasized a need for Republicans to be more aggressive about communicating their policy ideas.
“Our ideas are better than their ideas,” Christie said, referring to Democrats. “We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for. Because when we talk about what we’re for, no matter what state we’re in, our ideas win.”
Rubio, meanwhile, kept his remarks strictly focused on foreign policy and the role of the U.S. in a rapidly changing world. The focus has helped Rubio shed his skin as an immigration expert and re-emerge as a young, leading voice for a robust foreign policy on the right. The flare-ups in Venezuela and Ukraine have offered Rubio a platform to showcase this and, possibly, stand out among other 2016 hopefuls.
“America must be involved in leading the world. Not in dictating. We don’t want that role. Americans have never wanted the role of telling other people what to do. But we cannot ignore the reality of who we are. We cannot ignore global importance of this nation,” Rubio said as part of what turned out to be the most serious and, at times, somber, speech of the day. “The foreign policy issues of our time have deep economic ramifications. ... If you think high taxes and regulations are bad for our economy, so is global instability and the spread of totalitarianism.”
Both received a standing ovation.
While it’s not a sign of full embrace, it’s clear that activists on the right still see a future for Christie and Rubio. With two and a half years left before the next presidential election, that’s as much as any candidate with their past can ask for.