WASHINGTON — Marco Rubio wowed a crowd of influential conservative activists here Thursday with a call for smaller government and a stinging critique of President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. His appearance sparked several standing ovations — and entreaties that he consider a presidential bid.
It was quite the national debut for a U.S. Senate candidate from Florida who a year ago trailed a popular governor in the polls and fundraising. But the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Committee embraced Rubio as a rock star, at one point threatening to interrupt his speech by chanting his name.
"That 'Marco' cheer always worries me because I'm afraid someone is going to start cheering Polo, and it will ruin the speech," Rubio said, laughing.
Outside the hall, he was hailed as a savior of the party — an alternative to national party-endorsed Gov. Charlie Crist, whose embrace of Obama's $787 billion stimulus package enraged conservatives and has him sputtering in the polls.
Rubio delivered a speech rich with conservative hot buttons — endorsing tax cuts, vowing to try terrorists in military tribunals in Guantanamo and not a "courtroom in Manhattan," and accusing the administration of using the economic downturn not to "fix America, but to try to change America.
"Leaders at the highest levels of our government are undertaking a deliberate and systematic effort to redefine our government, our economy and our country," he said.
He tweaked the Republican Party as he saluted the Tea Party movement that has embraced his campaign, crediting Tea Party activists with leading opposition to Washington.
"From tea parties to the election in Massachusetts, we are witnessing the single greatest political pushback in American history," he said.
He noted that although Americans want politicians in Washington to work together, he said, "That comes with a very important caveat: It depends on what they're trying to do.
"America already has a Democrat Party; it doesn't need two Democrat parties," he said. "If the goal is not to fix America but to change America, then [the American people] want leaders that are going to come up here and fight it every step of the way."
He never mentioned Crist by name, but brought up Pennsylvania's Republican-turned-Democrat senator Arlen Specter, noting, "After all, the U.S. Senate already has one Arlen Specter too many."
And he used his parents' arrival in the U.S. from Cuba with "no English, no money, no friends'' to suggest the "American miracle" is under siege.
Their story, he said, is common in the U.S. "because those who came before us chose free enterprise. But now our leaders are asking us to choose something very different."
Rubio aides staffing a table outside the hall were mobbed after the speech by fans picking up campaign stickers and signing a volunteer sheet.
"I think he should be running for president one of these days,'' Bonnie Borris proclaimed. "He's got a message, he's got charisma, he's got a heart. This is the message America needs to hear. I had tears in my eyes.''
Borris, who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., pronounced Crist — and the Republican Party — "too moderate, too soft.
"Rubio knows we're lost and he'll get us back,'' she said.
The fans included a Virginia woman who said she stayed overnight at the hotel so she wouldn't miss Rubio's 10 a.m. speech.
Nearby, a Rubio associate teased former Republican Party of Florida chairman Al Cardenas, asking whether he was ready to switch sides. Though close to Rubio, Cardenas endorsed Crist last August.
Cardenas smiled tightly. "He's a very skilled orator and his message resonates,'' Cardenas said of Rubio. "There's obviously conservatism sweeping the country and he has a lot of wind at his back.'' Asked whether he'd consider switching sides, he said: "I am where I am.''
Crist's campaign shot back at Rubio's appearance, looking to draw a parallel between Obama and Rubio and suggesting the former Florida House speaker is all talk.
"In the past year, we have all seen the results of allowing a candidate to hide his record behind the veil of a good speech while touting his so-called ideals,'' said Crist spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "While Speaker Rubio claims he will not be co-opted by big government, his record as a Miami lobbyist while simultaneously serving in the Legislature demonstrates he is willing to be co-opted by much worse.''
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic candidate in the Senate general election, dismissed both Republicans. "Floridians need to hear solutions to our economic woes, not political doublespeak and ideological rhetoric,'' Meek said. "I stand with Floridians who need leaders to fight for them, not politicians who fight with each other.''
Rubio was introduced by South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, one of the first national conservatives to endorse him. DeMint noted his backing came soon after the National Republican Senatorial Committee appeared "giddy'' over its endorsement of Crist — whose name drew a lusty chorus of boos from the crowd.
"The Washington establishment laughed it off,'' DeMint said of his support for Rubio. "Well, they're not laughing now.''