By Annika McGinnis, McClatchy Newspapers (June 14, 2012)
WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who’s often mentioned as a possible vice-presidential running mate, was received warmly by a crowd of influential conservatives Thursday at an annual conference that also drew one of his potential rivals for the VP nod.
Rubio and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, spoke to about 250 conservatives at the annual Faith and Freedom Conference in downtown Washington.
For the two, who’ve been mentioned frequently as potential running mates for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, it was both an audition in front of an important gathering of religious conservatives and an informal competition.
For many members in the audience, there was a clear winner.
“Rubio’s more enthusiastic,” said Regina Brown, a conference attendee from Florida’s Tampa Bay area. “This ticket needs some enthusiasm.”
Evelyn Kerr, of Castleton, Va., agreed, and said she was particularly taken with the senator’s immigrant roots. Rubio’s parents came to the United States from Cuba in 1956.
“I am very much for him,” she said. “I like his background as somebody who wasn’t handed everything on a silver platter.”
Rita Grace, founder of the Constitutional Tea Party in Culpeper, Va., summed up Rubio’s main appeal and a big reason that he’s been mentioned as the most popular contender.
“Marco Rubio tends to, when he speaks, really reach the people,” she said.
Portman was received warmly as well.
The conference is organized by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a Christian conservative nonprofit organization. Thursday’s activities were part of an annual training and lobbying event for conservatives to help them prepare for the upcoming elections. Ralph Reed, the organization’s founder, introduced Rubio at the conference.
Portman, speaking first, stressed faith and the importance of family. The Ohio senator also gave significant attention to his extensive experience in Congress and the White House, the kind of long resume Rubio lacks.
“I’ve held a lot of titles. The honest truth is I can’t hold a job,” Portman joked, before reiterating that the titles “most important” to him are those of husband and father.
Rubio’s speech inspired loud cheers, applause and shouts of “Amen!” from the audience. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rubio emphasized American exceptionalism within a context of faith and family values.
“Nations and people all over the planet look to us and find inspiration and find the reality that if it’s possible here, it’s possible there,” Rubio said. “And that is where the American light and the American example can make the biggest difference in the world.”
Rubio took stabs at Democrats and the Obama administration, saying their view of how to achieve success is to “pull other people down.”
“They tell our fellow Americans that the reasons why they’re worse off is because other people are doing too well,” he said.
He said the Republican Party wasn’t anti-government.
“We believe government is an important institution in society,” he said. “It’s just not the most important institution in society.”
Portman has been the U.S. trade representative, the director of the Office of Management and Budget during the administration of President George W. Bush and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives or the Senate for more than 13 years.
Rubio is less experienced: This is his second year in Congress, before which he served as the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
Ned Jarvis, from Greensboro, N.C., said he was concerned that Rubio’s experience wasn’t broad enough. However, even he didn’t favor Portman; he supports Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.