WASHINGTON -- Marco Rubio hit President Barack Obama on Thursday for his recent ruling that religiously-affiliated employers must cover the cost of their employees' birth control, calling it a violation of the First Amendment.
"You may not agree with what that religion agrees. That's not the point. The point is, the First Amendment still applies," he told a crowd of Republicans gathered in Washington for the Conservative Political Action Conference, repeating a similar line to one he made to Fox News' Greta van Susteren a day before. "This isn't even a social issue; it's a constitutional issue."
CPAC is a high-profile event for conservatives, this year attracting three presidential candidates, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, making Rubio's speech more than just a defense of American exceptionalism. He's also considered a short-list possibility for vice president, an idea bolstered by the fact that he has yet to endorse a candidate. (He has has said he does not expect to be the vice presidential nominee, but that has hardly stopped speculation.)
Rubio's speech hit all of the right notes for Republicans. He mocked Obama for using a teleprompter. He dissed his Senate colleagues, especially on the left, saying he wonders how some of them got there. And more than anything, the speech called "Is America Still an Exceptional Nation?" -- the answer was yes -- and discussed the country's military and moral superiority.
Rubio laid out some of what he called the important issues for Republicans, such as simplifying the tax code, stopping some regulations and helping to reform Medicare and other entitlement programs.
"My mom's on Medicare," he said, calling it an important program in the state of Florida. "Medicare is going bankrupt. Anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare the way it is right now is in favor of bankrupting Medicare."
Rubio held up a blank sheet of paper, saying Obama has no plan for dealing with entitlements other than to bash Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) plan, which would privatize many elements of the system.
He had a few strong quips about Democrats, whom he said don't call themselves "liberals" because they know conservatives make up the majority of America. He said they instead call themselves "'progressive,' which I thought was the name of an insurance company."
Obama was also the target of heavy criticism. Rubio called him "a terrible president" and said he hasn't accomplished anything good in his three years in office, despite the Democratic majority in Congress during the first two years.
"Everything got worse, so he cannot run on his record," Rubio said, adding that the president is trying to pit Americans against each other to win in the election.
"That idea that the only way for some people to do better is for other people to do worse -- that's what other countries believe," he said. "That's the kind of thought process that people come here to get away from."
Rubio never mentioned immigration, other than a brief allusion when discussing the opportunities he had that his grandfather, born in Cuba, lacked. But that didn't mean he escaped the issue entirely. An anonymous flyer circulated the event implying that Rubio is too liberal on the issue, based on a recent speech where he called for softer rhetoric from both sides.
The paper read, "Senator Marco Rubio, elected to the Senate with strong conservative support, gave a keynote speech at the Hispanic Leadership Network Conference in Miami on 1/27/2012, in which he made a number of statements, raising questions about whether he's distancing himself from his previous opposition to amnesty for illegals."