Marco Rubio Tries to Reclaim His Conservative Bona Fides

At CPAC, the junior senator from Florida blows softly on the embers of his candidacy, avoids stepping on rakes.

Senator Marco Rubio arrives to speak during the American Conservative Union Conference March 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.
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Lucia Graves
March 6, 2014, 8:54 a.m.

The en­trenched wis­dom around Marco Ru­bio for some time now has been that his star has fallen. After com­mit­ting the sin of push­ing a bi­par­tis­an im­mig­ra­tion-re­form bill through the Sen­ate that in­cluded a path to leg­al­iz­a­tion, the tea-party move­ment had largely aban­doned him.

Ru­bio’s polit­ic­al de­mise was well re­ceived by the me­dia, which glee­fully doc­u­mented his de­cline. It was also good news for Chris Christie, who, in the linger­ing twi­light be­fore Bridgeg­ate, had in­her­ited Ru­bio’s crown of “pas­sion­ate and com­pas­sion­ate” con­ser­vat­ive who might ac­tu­ally win a gen­er­al pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

In his speech at the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence on Thursday, Ru­bio showed signs of re­claim­ing the mantle of vi­able cent­rist Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate, telling an en­thu­si­ast­ic crowd that Amer­ica had entered a peri­od of “ex­traordin­ary eco­nom­ic in­sec­ur­ity,” bash­ing Pres­id­ent Obama on for­eign policy and ac­cus­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion of en­ga­ging in class war­fare with re­gard to its mes­sage of eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity.

“They re­sort to what the Left al­ways re­sorts to,” Ru­bio told a packed ball­room, “di­vid­ing people against each oth­er. More than any oth­er ad­min­is­tra­tion in mod­ern Amer­ic­an his­tory, they go to Amer­ic­ans that are strug­gling and they tell them, ‘The reas­on you’re worse off is be­cause someone is do­ing too well. It is someone else’s fault that you’re go­ing through these dif­fi­cult times and the only solu­tion is to give gov­ern­ment more power to go after those people.’ “

He went on to cri­ti­cize the pres­id­ent on for­eign policy, hold­ing up China, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and Rus­sia as ex­amples of places where Amer­ic­an en­gage­ment is needed but cur­rently lack­ing. “What do all these coun­tries have in com­mon?” Ru­bio said. “These are to­tal­it­ari­an gov­ern­ments. All the prob­lems of the world, all the con­flicts of the world are be­ing cre­ated by to­tal­it­ari­an re­gimes who are more in­ter­ested in for­cing people to do what they want to do then in truly achiev­ing peace and prosper­ity.”

There is “one na­tion that can stand up to them,” Ru­bio ad­ded, and that is Amer­ica. “The United Na­tions can­not do this,” he said to ap­plause. “In fact, they can­not do any­thing.”

The tone and sub­stance of the speech aligns with Ru­bio’s re­cent pivot to win back the hawk­ish wing of the Re­pub­lic­an Party with his firm stances on for­eign policy, a stark con­trast to Rand Paul’s isol­a­tion­ism. Earli­er this week Ru­bio was out beat­ing the drum against Venezuela and Rus­sia, ar­guing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion must not ap­pear weak in the face of Rus­sia’s ag­gres­sion in Ukraine and the mount­ing Venezuelan gov­ern­ment’s crack­down against its own people.

Some say Ru­bio has been play­ing the long game all along. Jeff Flake, the Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or from Ari­zona who partnered with Ru­bio on im­mig­ra­tion re­form, re­cently told re­port­ers he thought Ru­bio would be­ne­fit from his ser­i­ous, sub­stant­ive ap­proach to the is­sues.

“Win­ning the pres­id­ency is about win­ning a gen­er­al,” Flake said, “not just a primary.”

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