COLUMBIA, S.C. - Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., doled out attacks on President Obama tonight in a high-profile speech before South Carolina Republicans, laying out aggressive criticisms of the president as he called him the most "divisive figure" in American politics.
"The president and his party's view of America's government and our lives is a failed one. It hasn't worked. His ideas that sounded so good in the classrooms of Harvard and Yale haven't really worked out well in the real world," Rubio said to applause at the South Carolina GOP's Silver Elephant Dinner at the state fairgrounds here. "They get frustrated. They can't win on their record, and so they've chosen to go down a different road, one that I think is destructive, counterproductive, and very unfortunate.
"For all the policy disagreements that we may have with the president, it is hard to understate how much he inspired people across this country four years ago, with his promises to unite America and lift it up," Rubio said. "The man who today occupies the White House and is running for president is a very different person. We have not seen such a divisive figure in modern American history as we have over the last three and a half years."
Rubio, whose parents emigrated to the United States from Cuba, described the drive that Americans possess, calling the United States a nation of "go-getters" and sharing the story of his own father, who worked as a bartender as he struggled to provide a better future for his children.
"When I get to speak at events like this on Saturday nights, it causes me to reflect a little bit. Five decades ago, my dad worked on Saturday nights, too. Except his job was that of a bartender. He stood behind the bar night after night, not just five decades ago, but for decades, working hard on behalf of his family and his children," Rubio, a father of four, said.
"The very purpose of their lives was to give us the chance to do all the things they never could," he said. "How come I have come to do things that he never did? How come he stood behind the bar and tonight I stand behind podium? Why am I here with you today? There are a lot of reasons. Because they worked hard and they sacrificed. Because they encouraged us to dream. Because I worked hard myself. Because God blessed us."
Throughout his speech, Rubio shifted between talking about the promise of a brighter America and the urgency with which Republicans should address this 2012 race, insisting they work to send a Republican to not only the White House but also both chambers of Congress.
"As frustrated as sometimes we may get with the leadership of our own party on one issue or another, the logical home of the limited government, constitutional Republican principles of our nation is the Republican Party. The logical home for the defense of the free enterprise system is the Republican Party," Rubio said. "It is the only organization in modern American politics that is still capable at this moment of driving forward these concepts and these principles that are so important for our future and require us to unite behind it with a sense of purpose and focus unlike any we have had in our lifetimes. This election will decide in so many ways what kind of nation we will leave our children and our grandchildren. "
But missing from his speech were any direct references to the presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney or the vice presidential spot for which many believe Rubio is being considered.
South Carolina politicians, from Gov. Nikki Haley to Sen. Jim DeMint, heaped praise on the young Florida senator before he hit the stage to speak, lauding him as being capable of providing a bright future for the Republican party.
"He's the future of the Republican Party, like Tim [Scott]," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. said in a speech.
Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who was elected in 2010, told ABC News before the speech that Rubio's youth and diversity adds to the DNA of the Republican Party and he would be a great addition to any GOP ticket.
DeMint, who endorsed Rubio in his 2010 Senate race, introduced the Florida senator as being a "voice for freedom that can inspire America once again to do those things, to follow those principles that made us great."
Rubio returned the adulation as he charmed the South Carolina crowd by telling them how important the endorsement from their popular junior senator was in his senate race.
"If Jim DeMint had not endorsed me, I would not be a member of the U.S. Senate today," Rubio said.
Rubio follows in the footsteps of former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who headlined the dinner in 2011. While he has yet to express overt interest for a spot on the GOP ticket this fall or any desire to run in 2016, Rubio has picked up his appearances to key political groups whose opinion could help his future in politics.
In April, he showed off his foreign policy credentials by delivering a speech at the Brookings Institute. One month later, he wooed a group of Iowa business leaders who gathered in Washington, D.C., and his trip to court South Carolina Republicans this weekend ramped up more speculation about the 40-year-old senator's political ambitions.
The South Carolina Republican Party hyped Rubio's appearance at the event, creating a glossy program and name tags bearing a photo of Rubio taken during his 2010 Senate campaign.