WASHINGTON -- Just days after he was sworn in, Sen. Marco Rubio was trying to knock down speculation.
"This is the one job that I wanted. I wanted to be a U.S. senator, not a vice presidential candidate, not a presidential candidate," he told a radio interviewer in January 2011. "I didn’t run to use it as a stepping-stone."
But Tuesday night at the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel, Rubio took another step in reaching for the next thing.
Encircled by the buzz over a potential run for president in 2016, the Florida Republican delivered a speech on ways to lift the middle class, calling it "the answer to the most pressing challenges we face" as he tried to project a fresh outlook for a GOP still reeling from last month’s election.
Rubio shared the stage, and a similar message, with another GOP hotshot and likely presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan. The ambitious, young politicians — Rubio, 41, Ryan, 42 — competed for the spotlight under the watch of several hundred guests, more than two dozen reporters and viewers of C-SPAN.
Rubio is more polished and charismatic, using the emotional power of his immigrant parents’ tale to drive his message. But Ryan, of Wisconsin, is beloved among conservatives and was equally well received.
The positioning was acknowledged only through a joke.
"You’re joining an elite group of past recipients — so far, it’s just me and you," Ryan said to Rubio, who was given a leadership award by the Jack Kemp Foundation at the group’s banquet Tuesday at the Mayflower. "I’ll see you at the reunion dinner — table for two. Know any good diners in Iowa or New Hampshire?’’
Rubio, who traveled to Iowa on Nov. 17, later joked, "I will not stand by and watch the people of South Carolina ignored."
For Rubio, who arrived in Washington by defeating a sitting governor knocked as a relentless office climber, his continued national emergence is a delicate balance of managing his vow to focus on the Senate with his political drive. He played down talk of becoming Mitt Romney’s running mate, a job that went to Ryan, but with the GOP left without a clear leader and searching for direction, Rubio won’t close doors.
Romney’s loss and other election disappointments have left the party searching for a new direction, and Rubio’s and Ryan’s speeches reflected their efforts to appeal to a broader group of voters. Both made an effort to distance themselves from the impression Romney left that half the country is hopelessly dependent on government — the infamous "47 percent" comments delivered at a private fundraiser in Boca Raton.
They pulled back on partisan rhetoric and tried to project a more hopeful and inclusive vision with a heavy focus on middle-class families.
"Some say that our problem is that the American people have changed," said Rubio, born in Miami to Cuban immigrants who worked blue-collar jobs. "That too many people want things from government. But I am still convinced that the overwhelming majority of our people just want what my parents had — a chance."
Ryan, in his first speech since the election, said: "We’ve got to set aside partisan considerations in favor of one overriding concern: How can we work together to repair the economy? How can we provide real security and upward mobility for all Americans — especially those in need?"
Like Ryan, Rubio acknowledged government’s role, including regulating food and environmental safety, but declared "big government has never worked."
Rubio called for preserving Medicare through reform and touched on improving access to education, including ways to give low-income students scholarships to attend private schools and touting his support of legislation to make it easier for families to understand the true cost of college debt.
While some Republicans say they are open to raising taxes on the wealthy, Rubio drew a firm line, and applause from the audience.
"It isn’t about a pledge," he said, alluding to Grover Norquist’s antitax manifesto. "It isn’t about protecting millionaires and billionaires. For me, it’s about the fact that the tax increases he (the president) wants would fail to make even a small dent in the debt but would hurt middle-class businesses and the people who work for them."
Ryan, the architect of a deep cutting budget blueprint that has become a rallying point for conservatives, seemed eager to cast himself in broader terms and portray a friendlier GOP.
"Both parties tend to divide Americans into ‘our voters’ and ‘their voters,’ " he said. "But Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American. I believe we can turn the engines of upward mobility back on, so that no one is left out from the promise of America. But it’s going to require a bold departure from the approach that government has taken for the last five decades.
He too spoke of empowerment with minimal government and focused on lifting people out of poverty, though he offered few solutions other than spending money more efficiently and looking to the private charities for guidance.
"Losing is part of politics and can often prepare the way for the greatest victories," said Ryan, seeming to signal his plans.
Tampa Bay Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.