A Pair of Senators Clash Over GOP Direction

(AP Photos) (National Journal)

For a life-sized representation of the identity crisis that's been plaguing the Republican Party since the 2012 election, look to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Back-to-back-speeches by the two likely presidential contenders on Thursday offered the perfect complement to the theme of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives."

To Rubio, a natural orator who artfully straddles the Republican establishment and the conservative grassroots, it's the party's delivery, not its platform of smaller government and American exceptionalism that needs tweaking. He waxed poetic about the virtues of the middle class, a textbook talking point. "We don't need a new idea. There is an idea, the idea is called America, and it still works," Rubio said to roaring applause.

But to Paul, a tea party firebrand whose recent talking filibuster of a presidential appointment brought the GOP establishment to its feet, the party needs a major makeover.  In a strong appeal to young voters, Paul is pushing back against the party's recent support of military interventionism, backing off the crackdown on drug use, and even suggesting tolerance for same-sex unions.

"The GOP of old has become stale and moss-covered," Paul said. "The new GOP will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere."

Later, Paul added, "Ask the Facebook generation whether we should put a kid in jail for the nonviolent crime of drug use and you will hear a resounding no."

Rubio, 41, is the bigger, more polished star with the broader vision. The Cuban-American from the nation's largest swing state comes straight out of central casting at a time when the party is courting the fast-growing Hispanic vote so it can start winning national elections again.

"The party is in need of a great communicator, and Marco is about as good as it gets," said Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry. "Rand Paul has a different style but he's so authentic that people want to hear more, and his message definitely resonates with the public."

Indeed, Paul, 51, is proving adept at moving the needle -- and Rubio along with it. As Paul's 13-hour filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan captured the national spotlight, Rubio clamored to bask in the glow by coming to the floor to show support, though he hadn't criticized the administration's drone policy in the past and voted for Brennan anyway. Last year, Rubio took issue with Paul's efforts to end all foreign aid to Pakistan, Libya and Egypt, and more recently he opposed Paul's amendment to ban the sale of military aircraft and tanks to Egypt. But earlier this week, Rubio announced he was sponsoring a measure to block aid to Egypt unless human rights issues were addressed. "The era of blank checks in exchange for little or nothing that advances America's interests is over," Rubio said earlier this week.

Rubio offered a more nuanced approach in his CPAC speech. "We can't solve every war. We can't be involved in every armed conflict," he said. "But we also can't be retreating from the world."

"I say not one penny more to countries that oppose us," said a more defiant Paul, referring to the $250 million in aid to Egypt recently announced by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Foreign policy experts say the contrasts between Paul and Rubio will help chart the Republican Party's direction as the U.S. winds down its involvement in Afghanistan.

"Neither of these guys has a long track record on foreign policy, and in some respects they are in search of their own voice," said Jim Carafano, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. Noting that voters rarely parse the details of a candidate's foreign policy, he added, "It's as much about building trust and confidence as it is about specific policies."

"One one hand you have Rubio who embraces the model of American leadership that has sustained global peace," said Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "And then you have Rand Paul who wants to spend less money to do less with the world. I see this as a genuine competition of ideas."

The comparisons between Rubio and Paul are inevitable. Both were elected in the tea party wave of 2010, but the biographical similarities end there. Rubio was a career politician and a former speaker of the Florida House who has never strayed from the GOP establishment. Paul, whose father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is considered a godfather of the tea party movement, was an eye doctor who had never run for office before.

"I will stand for our prosperity and our freedom," he said during his closing. "And I ask everyone who values liberty to stand with me."

In contrast, Rubio struck a more defensive tone in explaining his support for the party's traditional opposition to gay marriage, abortion and climate change science.

"Just because I believe states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot," he said. "The people who are actually close minded in our society are the ones who love to preach about climate science and refuse to believe the science that life begins at conception."

Rubio is leading talks on Capitol Hill on sweeping immigration reform but didn't mention the issue Thursday. He stuck to issues with stronger appeal to the conservative audience. "There is no tax increase in the world that will solve our long-term debt problem," he declared.

On taxes and the debt, he and Paul are on the same page. But Paul wasn't as adept at offering the guaranteed applause lines, and his examples of wacky government spending on robotic squirrels, meth-addicted monkeys and menus on Mars fell flat. He spoke at length about his filibuster protesting the administration's use of drones to kill enemy U.S. citizens even if they are on American soil.

"The message for the president is that no one person gets to decide the law," he said. "No one person gets to decide your guilt or innocence. My question -- my question to the president was about more than just about killing Americans on American soil. My question was about whether presidential power has limits."

Paul, like his father, has developed a cult following, especially among young conservatives. Half dollar-sized red stickers and posters declaring "Stand With Rand," were everywhere at the conference.

"Rand and his father are very similar on most issues, but Rand has a much better way of selling it," said Bonnie Kristian, spokesman for the Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian group.  "Rubio, as much as he takes on the tea party mantle, if you look at his actual policies, typically they are in line with what the Republican Party has been saying for decades. He is young, and he is charismatic, and people see him as something different, but in terms of the actual nuts and bolts of it, he's not that different."

Elahe Izadi contributed to this report.