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In DC debut, Florida's Rubio wows conservatives -- CPAC shouts 'amen' to calls for less government

February 18, 2010 | 10:02 am

He is already a giant slayer, a favorite of Tea Party activists, the guy who has toppled Florida Gov. Charlie Crist from his front-runner perch in the Republican primary for Senate.

Thursday, in his debut on the national stage, Marco Rubio showed why. Turns out it wasn't just that infamous photograph of Crist embracing President Obama and his $787-billion stimulus bill a year ago.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference, the 38-year-old son of Cuban immigrants attacked Obama's fiscal and foreign policies, drawing repeated standing ovations and shouts of "amen" from a crowd hungry for new conservative leadership.

He noted that the recent snows in Washington had closed the government, preventing new taxes and regulation, making the blizzard "the best thing to happen to the American economy in 12 months."

He appealed to the patriotic instincts of an audience furious over White House plans to try terrorist suspects in civilian courts. "Do you want your children to inherit your hopes and dreams, or do you want them to inherit your unfulfilled problems?" asked Rubio. "We must decide: Do we want to continue to be exceptional, or do we want to be like everyone else?"

And he accused the White House of using the Wall Street meltdown "as a cover, not to fix America but to try and change America, to fundamentally redefine the role of government in our lives and the role of America in the world." The good news, he added, "it didn't take long for the American people to figure this out."

In advance of the speech, the Crist campaign tried a preemptive strike, mailing reporters a mock draft of Rubio's speech that belittled the former state House speaker for painting himself as a political outsider. 

Maybe polls explain why. The latest Quinnipiac survey found Rubio leading Crist, 47% to 44% -- and more damningly, ahead in the estimation of Republican voters on trust, values and conservative credentials. Rasmussen has the edge even larger among likely voters, with Rubio commanding a 12-point advantage.

In a way this is a fight without meaning -- polls suggest both candidates would easily beat their Democratic counterparts.

But for high political drama, it doesn't get much better than this. The primary is Aug. 24. Grab the popcorn, pull up a chair and enjoy the show.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo credit: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

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