Hardly a month has passed since the end of presidential campaign 2012, but in a hotel ballroom here Tuesday night, campaign 2016 seemed almost in sight.
Two leading lights of the Republican Party -- Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman and former vice presidential nominee, and Marco Rubio, the Florida Senator who was a frequent presence on the campaign trail with Mitt Romney this year -- unveiled post-election messages, perhaps with an eye toward their future political ambitions.
Rubio, who was honored with a leadership award from the Jack Kemp Foundation, honed in on a message of strengthening the middle class through a limited government that promotes policies he said will spur job creation, enhance access to affordable healthcare, and expand educational opportunities to build a strong workforce.
"Government has a role to play. And we must make sure that it does its part. But it's a supporting role: to help create the conditions that enable prosperity in our private economy. That's a crucial role but a necessarily limited one. It can't substitute for what it is meant to enable -- a thriving free economy," Rubio said. "It is not the ever-expanding reach of government, but rather having access to the benefits of a thriving economy that allows the poor to rise into the middle class. Not by making rich people poorer, but by making poor people richer."
In his first major speech since the Nov. 6 election, Ryan appeared to distance himself from Romney's controversial remarks during the campaign about how "47 percent" of Americans are government-dependent and would never vote for a Republican, and his post-election assessment that President Obama managed to win by offering "gifts" to certain groups, particularly minorities.
"Both parties tend to divide Americans into 'our voters' and 'their voters,'" Ryan said. "Republicans must steer far clear of that trap."
He added that Kemp "hated the idea that any part of America could be written off."
Rubio, who notably did not mention Romney once in his speech, expressed a similar sentiment.
"Some say that our problem is that the American people have changed. That too many people want things from government," Rubio said. "But I am still convinced that the overwhelming majority of our people just want what my parents had -- a chance. A real chance to earn a good living, and provide even better opportunities for their children.
Rubio recounted an encounter he had with three hotel workers who saw his speech at the Republican National Convention, during which he told the story of his father -- a Cuban immigrant who worked as a bartender to provide a better future for his family.
"They had seen my speech at the Republican Convention, where I told the story of my father the banquet bartender. And they had a gift for me. They presented me with this name tag, which says 'Rubio, Banquet Bartender,'" Rubio said while holding the name tag in his hand. "You know what this reminds me of? This reminds me that there are millions of Mario Rubio's all across America today. They aren't looking for a handout. They just want a job that provides for their families."
The two GOP heavyweights made only passing references to the fight brewing in the nation's Capitol over how to handle how the impending fiscal cliff. Rubio cited his opposition to Obama's desire to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, while Ryan stressed that a debt crisis is coming unless action is taken soon.
"Our complicated and uncertain tax code is also hindering the creation of middle class jobs. You can't open or grow a business if your taxes are too high or too uncertain. And that's why I personally oppose the president's plan to raise taxes," Rubio said. "This isn't about a pledge. It isn't about protecting millionaires and billionaires. For me, it's about the fact that the tax increases he wants would fail to make even a small dent in the debt but it would hurt middle class businesses and the people who work for them."
And Ryan issued the following warning: "Look at the road we're on -- with trillion-dollar deficits every year. Even worse is the prospect of a debt crisis, which will come unless we do something very soon. When government's finances collapse, it's the most vulnerable that are the first victims, as we're seeing right now in Europe."
At the dinner, sponsored by the Jack Kemp Foundation, an organization set up to honor Kemp, a former cabinet secretary, member of Congress from New York and the 1996 GOP vice presidential nominee, the two lawmakers were seated at separate tables in an opulent ballroom at Washington's Mayflower Hotel. Rubio was accompanied by his wife, Jeanette.
Ryan, who served as the keynote speaker at the dinner honoring Rubio, joked about a common link with Kemp, who he called his "mentor."
"We both used to be the next vice president of the United States," he said.
He used the speech to call on Republicans to "carry on and keep fighting for the American Idea" at a time when the party is in the midst of a period of serious self-examination.
"The election didn't go our way, and the Republican Party can't make excuses," Ryan said. "We can't spend the next four years on the sidelines. Instead, we must find new ways to apply our timeless principles to the challenges of the day."
But despite the loss by the GOP ticket this fall, Ryan still pronounced himself "proud of our party" and "proud of Mitt Romney."
"He's a good man who did our nation a great service by making a big election about big ideas and offering serious solutions to serious problems and we thank him for doing that," Ryan said.
Still, it was evident that the wounds of Romney and Ryan's failed White House bid were fresh.
"We gave this race our all, and I'm grateful for the nomination," Ryan said. "I got to say. It is thrilling when your team trusts you with the ball -- and it's humbling when you advance the ball as far as you can, only to come up a little short."
But the night was not without a few lighthearted references to the campaign -- and potential primary battle -- to come.
In his introduction of Rubio, Jack Kemp's son, James Kemp, described the Florida senator as "the perfect nominee," before quickly correcting himself --"awardee."
And in his remarks Ryan congratulated Rubio on receiving the same leadership award from the foundation the Wisconsin congressman won one year ago.
"As you may know, Marco is joining an elite group of past recipients for this award. Two of us so far," Ryan said. "I'll see you at the reunion dinner -- table for two. You know any good diners in New Hampshire or Iowa?"
Rubio joined in on fueling the 2016 fire, saying, "Paul, thank you for the invitation to lunch in Iowa and New Hampshire, but I will not stand by and watch the people of South Carolina ignored."