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CPAC: Why Marco Rubio could be the real winner (+video)

Marco Rubio came in a close second to Rand Paul in CPAC's presidential straw poll. But Florida's junior senator has a lot going for him as he has morphed into a mainstream Republican favorite.

A brief review of CPAC speakers
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Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, came in second Saturday to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in the presidential straw poll at the big annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC.

But just barely. Senator Rubio got 23 percent to Senator Paul’s 25 – the only two people to score in double digits of the 23 potential candidates on the ballot (plus 44 write-ins).

There are two big reasons to discount the poll: It’s unscientific and the 2016 presidential election is far away.

Some attendees didn’t bother to vote, they said, because they’re more focused on the 2014 midterms. And more than half (52 percent) of the 2,390 people who did vote were between the ages of 18 and 25 – hardly typical of the Republican electorate, though reflective of CPAC’s success in attracting young people. Many of today’s college Republicans lean libertarian like Paul.

Still, Rubio can take heart from his performance in the first cattle call of the 2016 cycle. Though elected to the Senate in 2010 as a tea party darling (like Paul), he has morphed into a mainstream GOP favorite. Rubio’s CPAC speech wasn’t as pungent as Paul’s – “The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” the Kentuckian said – but he still got the packed ballroom to its feet Thursday with an approach that was more inspirational than hard-edged.

“We don't need a new idea,” Rubio said. “There is an idea. The idea is called America, and it still works.”

Rubio also tossed in some red meat to social conservatives, defending traditional marriage, opposition to abortion, and skepticism on climate change. But he didn’t dwell on those topics, and on gay marriage, he occupied a middle ground, allowing that states have the right to define marriage how they wish.  

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