Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) launched a vehement defense of conservative ideals in a major address on Thursday, arguing that these long-held principles could address the problems of the 21st century.
But he declined to address one major policy area where he's at odds with many in the conservative movement: immigration reform.
Rubio is a potential 2016 presidential candidate, and he received a thunderous ovation from a packed hall of activists upon taking the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier today. Even though the GOP failed to defeat President Barack Obama in last November's election, Rubio refuted the notion that the party will need to alter its ideology on core issues such as taxes, healthcare, social issues, and America's posture in world affairs, in order to form a winning coalition.
"We don't need a new idea. The idea is America and it still works," he told the audience, which rose to its feet in applause.
Rubio conceded that the GOP may have to alter its message in order to appeal to a broader swath of voters, especially the middle-class and those who suffered financial loss as a result of the 2008 recession. The senator said many people hurt by the recession wonder, "who's fighting for the hard-working, every day people of this country?"
He also added that it's crucial for conservatives to demonstrate respect toward their opponents. But that did not mean conservatives should back away from their beliefs on key issues.
"Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot," he said with regard to gay marriage.
Rubio also accused liberals of trying to have it both ways when it comes to climate change and abortion.
"The people who are close-minded in our society are the ones who love to preach about climate science, but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception," Rubio said.
And the Florida senator rejected calls for the U.S. to limit its engagement with the rest of the world, saying that it's important for America to continue to promote democracy to counteract the rise of China.
Yet, the most notable part of Rubio's address may have been his decision to avoid speaking about immigration reform. The senator has played a central role on the issue as a member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" drafting an immigration bill in the Senate. But the proposal put forth by the group contains one provision that has not been fully embraced by the CPAC crowd: an earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Just hours before Rubio spoke, CPAC held a panel on immigration reform that received a mixed reception from the audience of conservative activists. But panelists argued it's a crucial task to convince other conservatives to support immigration reform, in part to win back Hispanic voters who have largely abandoned in the GOP.
"What I would hope is that you help conservatives who are putting their neck on the line," to find a solution, Jennifer Korn, executive director of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network, told the audience during the panel. "You can be conservative and you can be for immigration reform. I ask you to be part of the solution."