In his Saturday morning address, the junior senator from Florida saw the loudest, boldest and best response of any presidential candidate at the weekend-long Conservative Political Action Conference. It left ears ringing and the crowd on their feet, demanding more.
Rubio’s optimistic stump speech found a welcome audience here at CPAC, whose attendees often skew younger than most Republican gatherings, and he spoke at length about working to ensure a strong future for the next generation.
“Young Americans have a chance to fulfill an incredible potential,” he said at the end of his address. “But we have to give them a chance. And they won’t have a chance if a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is elected. And they won’t have a chance if the conservative movement is hijacked by someone who isn’t a conservative.”
The not-so-subtle dig at Donald Trump – whom he derided for having positions that are out of line with much of the conservative movement in attendance here – drew some of the loudest cheers and hollers of the day.
Rubio sat down for questions with CNN’s Dana Bash, who asked him repeatedly about Trump’s rise and his remarks, angering the crowd who shouted out that they wanted to hear more about Rubio – not the Republican front-runner, who cancelled his scheduled appearance here at the last minute to attend a rally in Kansas.
There was a palpable distaste for Trump at the event and a number of boos at mention of his cancellation. Conservatives who attended the event said they felt it was wrong for him to cancel his event.
“He said he was going to be here, and that’s what this campaign is about – doing what you said you were going to do,” Arthur Perry, 55, said. “And this is a small thing, [but] he said he was going to be here, he shoulda been here.”
Perry traveled from Houston, Texas, to attend the gathering, and Matthew Mailloux, 19, who came from New Hampshire, agreed.
“It’s become a pattern for Trump. He’ll stand on one thing, and within a matter of days, he’ll have an entirely different position,” Mailloux said, adding that Trump isn’t the only candidate running a national campaign.
Mailloux continued: The four other candidates “made the effort and the time to show up and talk to the voters, I think that speaks volumes about how serious they are about the process, whereas Trump is still in this reality TV ‘it’s all about me’ mindset.”
Though the crowd disproportionately favored Sen. Ted Cruz and Rubio in the election and were frustrated by Trump’s no-show, one Trump supporter said she didn’t mind that he had skipped it.
“He can be sipping a mai tai for all I care – he’s my guy,” Kira Innis, 29, said.