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Marco Rubio at CPAC: Loving Everything About America Except Charlie Crist

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference began with a two-man rev-up for Marco Rubio, the former GOP speaker of the House in Florida who has become a cause celebre by running hard for the open Senate seat sought by Gov. Charlie Crist (R-Fla.).

ACU’s President David Keene briefly reminded the crowd that his group was not one of those conservative groups that had lost its way — it kept score of conservative votes cast by senators and congressman. The only man with a 100 percent score: Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who walked onstage to introduce Rubio.

“I remember being in a room with Republican senators, so pleased that they’d endorsed Charlie Crist,” said DeMint. He went on to talk to Rubio for 15 minutes, he said, and promptly endorsed the man. “The Washington establishment laughed it off. Well, they’re not laughing now!” And with a strange intro line — “George Will says he will win, absolutely” — DeMint cleared the way for a beaming Rubio.

“A few weeks ago I wasn’t sure I could make it here!” said Rubio, joking about the city’s crippling snowstorms. “Congress couldn’t even meet to work on business. The

president couldn’t find anywhere to set up his teleprompter to announce new taxes!” Two teleprompter screens stood in front of Rubio, although he didn’t use them.

The speech that followed from there barely dealt with Rubio’s primary run — he didn’t mention Crist, only saying that “one Arlen Specter is enough” in the Senate, and that high-powered endorsements couldn’t prevent primary challenges. (Rubio has been endorsed, of course, by Jeb Bush.) It only tangentially dealt with the duties of a potential senator — it sounded more like a presidential speech, with salutes to the Tea Parties, bold tax proposals and some re-litigation of the 2008 election.

“Clever one-line slogans are not going to spare you the need to discuss policy issues in detail,” said Rubio. He accused Obama of “using” the economic crisis “not to fix America, but to change America.” The American people, he said, had “figured it out”: “From Tea Parties to the election in Massachusetts, we are witnessing the single greatest political pushback in American history.”

All of this got huge applause, as did Rubio’s fairly standard policy proposals: deep tax cuts, the elimination of the capital gains tax and “death tax,” lawsuit reform. He got his biggest ovation when he went after the Obama administration’s war on terror policies. Terrorists, he said, should be killed or “captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay, where they will face a military tribunal, not to Manhattan and a civilian court.”

That got a standing ovation from a rapturous crowd. One voice yelled out (hard to hear from my seat) “waterboard” or “waterboard them.” Rubio joked it off — “I told you about that Marco-Polo thing!” he said, referring to how he winced when people chanted “Marco.”

The rest of his speech — about 10 minutes — dealt with his upbringing, with stories of “hearing my father’s keys in the door as he returned home from another 16-hour day at work,” putting it in the context of American exceptionalism — “This is the only place in the world where you can open a small business in a spare bedroom in your home.”

Rubio ended on another ovation — as he left, around 10 percent of the crowd filed out, skipping Jim DeMint’s speech. The senator didn’t seem to mind.

“Boy, I could use a man like that in the United States Senate,” said DeMint. “If you didn’t love this country when you got here today, I’m sure you love it now!”

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