By Dana Milbank
Friday, February 19, 2010; A02
The anti-Crist came to Washington on Thursday. In the ballroom of the Marriott Wardman Park, they acted as if he were the Messiah.
His name: Marco Rubio, the far-right challenger to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in that state's Republican Senate primary. He was the kickoff speaker at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, and he delivered just the message they wanted to hear: anti-taxes, pro Gitmo, anti-Obama, pro-waterboarding.
The 38-year-old Cuban American vowed to fight "every step of the way" against President Obama and Democrats who want to "abandon America's free enterprise economy" and "convert America into a submissive member of the international community."
The audience erupted in cheers of "Marco! Marco!"
"That 'Marco' cheer always worries me, because I'm always afraid that someone is going to starting screaming, 'Polo,' " he joked, referring to the swimming-pool game.
Moments later, he was talking about the need to kill terrorists and capture survivors.
"Waterboard them!" an audience member shouted.
The anti-Crist smiled. "Remember the Marco Polo thing I told you?" His audience howled. "We will get useful information from them," Rubio went on, to more cheers, "and then we will bring them to justice in front of a military tribunal in Guantanamo!"
The house went wild.
Celebrating the infamous military prison once would have been extraordinary -- even President George W. Bush said he wanted to close it -- but the delight about waterboarding and Gitmo served as a reminder of where the conservative movement has gone.
Rubio and the other CPAC speakers positioned themselves as outsiders to the political establishment -- Rubio derided the "political class," while others condemned the "Washington establishment" and the "political establishment" -- but in reality conservatives have become the political establishment, or at least the Republican establishment.
The chairman of the Republican National Committee describes himself as a "tea partier." Republican lawmakers in both houses of Congress have voted with near unanimity against every item Obama has proposed, and even the few moderates remaining have been forced to march in unison out of fear of a conservative primary challenger. The Republican Party has quit the country club for CPAC.
"I've been criticized by some of my Republican colleagues for saying I'd rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in the principles of freedom than 60 who don't believe in anything," Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) boasted to Thursday's crowd. "Let me make myself even clearer: I'd rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters."
As the huge crowd was still streaming in, Cleta Mitchell of the American Conservative Union Foundation opened the conference with the words, "Welcome to the vast right-wing conspiracy." Later, former vice president Dick Cheney made a surprise appearance, joining his daughter Liz and delivering his forecast that Obama will be "a one-term president." Mitt Romney pronounced the Democrats "liberal neo-monarchists."
DeMint treated the assembly to accusations that the Democrats are sponsoring "discredited socialist policies that have been the enemy of freedom for centuries." He warned that the nation is "teetering toward tyranny," made reference to his famous quote that Obama would meet his "Waterloo," and said of the president: "Just because you are good on TV doesn't mean you can sell socialism to freedom-loving Americans."
But the real star was the Florida Senate candidate. Even before Rubio took the stage, the crowd booed Crist's name when DeMint mentioned it in his introduction. The devil may wear Prada, but the anti-Crist wore a flag pin on his lapel, a Bush-blue tie and a boyish smile. He flashed a victory sign and then began a speech that had so much red meat it was raw.
The blizzards in Washington may have been "the best thing to happen to the American economy in 12 months," Rubio said, because "Congress couldn't meet to vote," the "regulatory agencies couldn't meet to set any regulations" and Obama "couldn't find anywhere to set up a teleprompter to announce new taxes."
He described Obama and the Democrats' worldview: opposing capitalism, blaming the United States for terrorists, and using "a severe recession as an excuse to implement the statist policies that they have longed for."
But no more. "From tea parties to the election in Massachusetts, we are witnessing the single greatest political pushback in American history," he exulted, adding that "2010 is a referendum on the very identity of our nation."
The anti-Crist took a shot at his rival and the shrinking band of Republican moderates. "America already has a Democrat party; it doesn't need two Democrat parties," he said. Rubio's agenda: across-the-board tax cuts, lower corporate tax rates, and abolishing taxes on capital gains, dividends, interest and inheritance. Oh, and reducing the debt, too.
The crowd reacted as if the anti-Crist had preached the gospel. A man wearing a tricorn hat and carrying a Don't Tread On Me flag repeatedly shouted "Amen!" A woman yelled "Praise God!" And the others leapt to their feet in waves of ovations.
"I was standing backstage with tears," DeMint told the crowd after Rubio's speech. "What a treasure."