This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Speeches from Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio on Tuesday at the International Association of Fire Fighters' presidential forum seemed tailored to proving their blue-collar bona fides to the crowd of emergency workers, with Graham and Rubio alike touching on the connection between personal sacrifice and success in America.

"The only impediment to passing along the American Dream is ourselves," said Graham, who detailed how tackling entitlements is key to America's financial health as 80 million baby boomers retire in the coming years.

Nine likely 2016 candidates attended Tuesday's forum to ingratiate themselves to the nation's largest trade union of firefighters and emergency medical workers. It's part of the organization's annual four-day legislative conference, during which union members lobby legislators on the Hill.

Rubio, the brother-in-law of two Miami-Dade firefighters, began his speech highlighting the efforts of emergency workers before diving into a field on which he's tried to build his career: economics.

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In addition to the typical reduce-regulations-and-overhaul-the-tax-code message touted by many in the Republican Party, Rubio spent a chunk of his speech discussing education's key role in economic growth, including the importance of vocational training for those who'd otherwise drop out of high school "because they don't care about Shakespeare," as well as the danger of large student loans without big wage payoffs.

Rubio, no stranger to the American Dream theme, said public policies today don't promote investment or innovation in the United States, two components necessary to "keep America special" and keep workers confident in their ability to achieve success.

Graham, after a mid-speech foreign policy interlude on the Islamic State and Iran, said issues such as ballooning entitlement spending and military spending cuts are likewise hurting America—and "Congress allowed this to happen because we don't know what the hell we're doing up here."

He said he's willing to work across the aisle if it means helping the country as he's been helped in the past. Graham, who spent time discussing how Social Security benefits kept him and his sister financially afloat after his parents died—a story he has told before to separate himself from the silver-spooners in Congress—said he'd be willing to give up some of his own benefits if it meant helping others in need.

"I'm a proud Republican, but I'll tell you this, folks: We're all one car wreck away from needing someone to help us," he said.

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The message fit the day's crowd. IAFF, headquartered in Washington, numbers some 300,000 members, including city and county firefighters, EMTs, and other state and federal employees.

In his introduction to the day's events, IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said his organization is politically diverse, and the forum's goal is to give every candidate an opportunity to be heard before the IAFF gives "the gold and black brand"—its endorsement—to a selected candidate.

Though Rubio and Graham each got standing ovations from the forum audience, neither one will likely be the union's preferred candidate, if history is any indication.

The AFL-CIO-affiliated union has endorsed presidential candidates since the mid-1970s, and in recent presidential elections it has exclusively knighted Democrats: John Kerry in the 2004 cycle, Chris Dodd during the 2008 primary campaign, and President Obama in 2012. The union similarly supports Democrats in the House and Senate: Leading up to the 2014 midterms, about 85 percent of its PAC spending for individual candidates went to Democrats, most in the House; in 2012, 84 percent of the union's individual candidate contributions in the House went to Democrats and as did 93 percent of its Senate contributions.

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Still, on the state level, Republican endorsements are not uncommon.

In 2007, of the 12 major Democratic and Republican candidates running for president, 11 showed up at the IAFF forum, including Obama, then-Sen. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Mitt Romney, Schaitberger said.

This year, the two 2016 establishment favorites—Clinton and Jeb Bush—are not attending because of scheduling conflicts. Bush prerecorded a greeting to the forum's crowd expressing his regret for not being in attendance, and Clinton "wants me to express to you her good wishes, and we wish the schedule would have permitted" her attendance, Schaitberger said.

Graham seemed to know that many in the crowd were his ideological opposites, saying that his experience in the Air Force and in Congress has shown him that actions trump political inclinations when the going gets tough—a view he saw reflected in the firefighters he was speaking to. "Does it really matter—when you're going into a building—the politics of your brother or sister?" he asked.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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