Whether or not he is picked as Mitt Romney's running mate, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is beginning to look and sound like a contender for president himself — in 2016.
The young charismatic senator on Thursday was the main attraction at a gathering of Iowa business leaders in Washington, introduced to the crowd by fellow Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, a political heavyweight in the state that traditionally votes first in the presidential primaries.
Grassley said he didn't know whether Rubio would agree to be Romney's vice-presidential pick if asked, but said that if he does, "It's not going to be based upon a Republican candidate for president making that call. It's not going to be based on doing something good for the Republican Party. I know Senator Rubio [and] he's only going to do it because America calls."
For 45 minutes, Rubio proceeded to lay out his vision for the country in the kind of speech a presidential candidate might deliver on the campaign trail. He spoke in the language of big ideas — about the importance of reforming the tax code and regulatory rules, reducing the national debt, transforming the educational system to better suit the changing economy, and reforming the Medicare program without hurting people like his mother, who receives the benefit.
"The American example is powerful, and as I stand before you today, there's still nothing to replace it," Rubio told about 150 members of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. "If America declines, there's no one to take our place. There's no other country on this planet prepared to be what we once were. If we decline, who rises?
"I have no doubt that this generation of Americans will do what every generation of Americans before us has done. We will confront these problems, and we will solve them. I have no doubt about that."
Rubio has added other presidential-campaign style activities to his calendar. He is scheduled to appear on May 19 at the Silver Elephant Dinner in Columbia S.C., the state GOP's annual fundraising dinner. And his political action committee has been active in the Indiana and Ohio Senate races among others.
Jay Byers, the chairman of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said the organization invited Rubio to speak because he was the first choice of many of its members. "His national prominence is what sparked the interest of many of our member. Senator Rubio is a rising star in politics, and it isn't a secret that he's been showing up on the short list of vice-presidential candidates. He will be someone that Iowans and so many others should be watching."
His speech to the group was notably clear of the biting partisan rhetoric of the 2012 presidential campaign. "You deserve better than that," he told the crowd. The only hint of partisanship was his criticism of President Obama's rhetoric, though Rubio never mentioned the president by name. Neither did he mention Romney by name.
"The greatest thing we can do for the world is be American. Be exceptional. Continue to be a place where we don't divide people against each other. Continue to be a place where we don't tell people the way for you to climb the economic ladder is for me to bring him down; the way for you to be better off is for me to take money from this guy and give it to that guy," Rubio said. "That's what the rest of the world does and it doesn't work. People get on boats and climb fences to get out of countries like that.
"And you know where they come? They come here. Because we're not that way. We should never be that way."
Rubio also invoked some GOP talking points when he asserted that Democrats proposed a bill to prevent a hike on federal student-loan rates that was solely designed to make Republicans appear uncaring to the plight of students.
After his remarks, members of the group asked about Rubio's views on immigration and the new version of the Dream Act he has proposed. His would allow children of immigrants brought to the United States illegally to remain in the country if they go to college or serve in the military. Unlike Democratic versions of the bill, however, it would not provide a path to U.S. citizenship.
"Their claim is not a claim on our laws," said Rubio, comparing those affected by his proposal to refugees and their situation to a humanitarian problem. "Their claim is a claim on our conscience, and if we want to, if we feel compelled because of the humanitarian cause, we can address it."