ORLANDO — Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) came face-to-face Friday with how his support for a bipartisan immigration deal has hurt his standing with the GOP’s tea party wing, facing loud hecklers during a speech to a group of influential conservative activists.
Rubio’s address at the opening session of the “Defending the American Dream Summit,” sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, was punctuated repeatedly by calls of “No amnesty!” from attendees scattered throughout the audience of about 1,000 people.
Rubio did not acknowledge the shouts, but he ended his speech with an impassioned description of the promise that he said America offers immigrants such as his parents, who came from Cuba.
“My family’s story is not just about them — it’s about us,” Rubio said. “It’s the story of millions of people before them and since who achieved here in this land what would have been impossible almost anywhere else. That is still who we are. Today there are millions of people among us, trying to do what my parents did for us and what your parents did for you.”
He ended by assailing President Obama’s health-care overhaul, bringing many in the room to their feet. And he drew loud applause for his assertion that “big government is doing what it’s always done — it is failing.” But he avoided directly addressing his push for Senate legislation providing a path to citizenship for as many as 11 million illegal immigrants, an issue likely to haunt him in conservative circles as he lays the groundwork for a possible White House run in 2016.
“I’d like to see Marco Rubio, just so I can tell him what I think of his positions — he’s on the wrong track of being a conservative,” Rick Barr, a 60-year-old activist from Indianapolis, said before the speech.
“We’re all a little irritated with Marco,” said Judy Peterson, a retired special-education teacher from Treasure Island, Fla. “Now, that doesn’t mean we’ve thrown him under the bus. But we would like him to — just, come on. He hasn’t explained it very well.”
Rubio was part of a quartet of potential 2016 Republican presidential contenders making their pitch at the Americans for Prosperity summit, an early cattle call for those seeking support from tea party activists. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal addressed the crowd on Friday, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is set to be the keynote speaker at Saturday’s closing session.
Americans for Prosperity is a prominent force in the tea party movement, and it was on the front lines attacking Obama on the airwaves in 2012. A central player among a constellation of groups that have been backed by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, the group spent $190 million in the past election cycle.
Tim Phillips, president of the advocacy group and its sister foundation, acknowledged to activists that the election results were a disappointment.
“I know things are difficult in D.C.,” he said. “It can get frustrating, you can get down and depressed sometimes. But I tell you, do what we do — get the heck out of Washington and get out to states. Economic freedom is alive and well. And look, we’re going to take back Washington, as well. It’s going to take a little bit more time.”
David Koch, chair of the group’s foundation, told the crowd that the event was “one of the most inspirational meetings I’ve ever been to in my life.”
Ronald Reagan memorabilia, National Rifle Association T-shirts and anti-Obamacare literature were in abundance at the conference center of an Orlando resort, where hundreds of activists swapped strategies for promoting conservative ideas.
“We need some more strong leaders who will stand up to the liberal agenda,” said Eileen Maginnis, a retired nurse who lives in Tampa.
Friday’s speakers sought to cast themselves in that vein, lambasting Obama and his administration as big government gone awry.
“I don’t think the American people particularly want to look to Washington, D.C., to solve the problems of the day,” Perry said. “Washington, D.C., is creating the problems of the day.”
Jindal told the audience that he was “angry this government is using its power — the IRS, the NSA, the Department of Justice — to go after innocent, law-abiding Americans.”
“But I am so grateful that there are people like you showing up every day for the fight,” he said, adding: “There is a rebellion brewing in these states — there are Americans standing up for freedom.”
The strongest rhetoric of the day came from conservative writer David Horowitz, who called the president “the most brazen and compulsive liar to ever occupy the White House,” drawing loud whoops and cheers from the audience.
“The reason we don’t attack him is obvious, but no one will say it out loud. I will: It’s because the color of his skin is black,” Horowitz told the crowd, which was predominantly white. “It is because Obama is a minority that nobody will hold him to a standard or confront him with what he has done.”
Earlier, as she waited in line to get into the event, Andrea Shea King, a conservative radio talk show host in Florida, said the robust turnout showed how the conservative movement is already focused on the next fight: “If people think the tea party is dead, they haven’t looked around.”