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« GOP Primary For Illinois Governor Still Unsettled | Blog Home Page | Crist Camp Offers Mock Speech For Rubio »

CPAC Marks Rubio's Debut In National Spotlight

For all the attention Marco Rubio has received in the past year, he's still something of an unknown quantity to many of the conservative activists who have been drawn to his campaign for Senate in Florida. Considered a rising star on the right, Rubio now faces his first major audition on the national stage tomorrow when he delivers the opening keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

"It's safe to say that it's the largest audience that he's spoken to at any point in the campaign," said Alex Burgos, Rubio's campaign spokesman. "It's ultimately an opportunity to share his message, to share his experience with fellow conservatives and talk about the stakes in this race. It's an honor."

Rubio, former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, serves in a roll filled most recently by Paul Ryan and Mike Pence, Congressman seen as playing a key role in shaping the message of the GOP into the future. CPAC organizers point to their keynote speeches as launching pads for that leadership role.

"We try to select someone who we see as an articulate and thoughtful conservative who we believe will deliver an inspiring message to those attending the opening session of the conference, and who we believe is someone attendees should take notice of because he or she will have incredible influence inside and outside the movement in he future," said David Keene, CPAC chairman.

There will certainly be some pressure to justify the outsized persona Rubio has developed as a poster-child for the resurgent right (he's already graced the cover of National Review). And the audience Rubio will be speaking to at the conservative confab is expected to be one of the largest ever, organizers say, with as many as 10,000 attending.

Rubio released a Web video Tuesday previewing his address. "I really, truly believe America is at an extraordinary crossroads. We need to decide which kind of country we want to be going forward," he says.

Rubio will not likely come into the conference with a prepared speech; someone who routinely lampoons President Obama for his reliance on a teleprompter wouldn't likely have his own. Instead, as is his style, he will likely prepare a general outline but largely speak "from the heart" about his principles and the conservative movement.

His remarks will likely mirror what Rubio has been discussing on a local level in his campaign against centrist Gov. Charlie Crist. But he'll also expand on the direction of the Democratic-controlled Washington and the role of the conservative movement.

"Ultimately the message will reflect the message that has allowed him to rise to the point where he is today," Burgos said.

Rubio will have a busy schedule beyond the speech and the conference itself. Among some finance events is a gathering with other Beltway conservatives hosted by Cesar Conda, a former policy aide to Vice President Cheney and the Romney campaign who switched his endorsement from Crist to Rubio this week. Expected to attend are Reps. Pence and Ryan, Sens. Jim DeMint and Jim Inhofe, Mary Matalin, Liz Cheney and former Reps. Vin Weber and J.C. Watts.

His turn in the spotlight comes at an event where presidential politics is always on people's minds. Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty will be speaking as they lay the groundwork for national campaigns. And in Rubio, attendees see someone already being discussed as a potential vice presidential selection.

But Rubio isn't looking past the race before him now, his campaign stresses. In fact, the campaign is organizing around the speech, with watch parties planned for supporters across the state. For its part, the Crist campaign hopes to spoil the moment by making a new offensive questioning Rubio's credentials. On Tuesday, Florida reporters received materials documenting alleged conservative conversions on a host of issues.

"CPAC attendees will be very disappointed to learn [that] the real Speaker Rubio, despite his high-flying rhetoric, supports a carbon tax, is soft on guns and spent so drastically as Speaker it was deemed 'shocking,'" said Andrea Saul, the Crist campaign's communication director. "No matter what lengths Speaker Rubio takes to hide his record, he is still just a big-spending Miami lobbyist."