Before his speech at CPAC, I had a chance to join a small group of conservative journalists in sitting down with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). He was, sadly for Republicans, more articulate, compelling and entertaining than any of the presidential contenders. His ability to weave bigger themes with specific policies and good-natured jabs at political opponents is unmatched presently.

He ran through a brief recitation of his views on the free market and the necessity of maintaining America’s place in the world. ( This was largely repeated in his very enthusiastically received address to the CPAC audience.) He has mastered the ability to recite a clear, visionary message while making it appear that he is speaking extemporaneously.

His style is a mix of cheery optimism with understated humor. (He said of President Obama: “Looks like a really good guy, a really good father . . . and a really bad president.”)

He took a headline issue, the contraception controversy, and elevated it. “This is not a partisan issue,” Rubio said, asserting that it is not even a “social” issue, but rather a constitutional one concerning the First Amendment expression of religion. It is that ability to speak in larger terms that many Republicans complain has been missing from the presidential race.

He can be partisan with a smile and a laugh. Rubio argued that conservatism works because “most people believe” in its principles. He jested that we know that because liberals don’t like to be called “liberals” but conservatives are always fighting over who is the Reagan conservative. He joked, “How come no one is fighting over who’s Jimmy Carter?”

I began the session by asking Rubio whether he is pleased with the discussion of immigration in the GOP presidential race. He said, “I am pleased with the direction of the Republican debate. We are the pro-legal immigration party.” He stressed the plight of those “waiting in line” to get into the country legally. (“What about these people?”) But his message was clear: “We are the party of immigration modernization, not just the anti-illegal immigration party.”

How Rubio talks about immigration, however, is markedly different from what we hear in the presidential debate. He concedes that the vast majority of people who come here do so for jobs and to gain a better life for themselves. He certainly reeled off measures to limit illegal immigration (e.g., border security, employer verification, a guest-worker program) but also recognized that this will still leave us with 9 million to 11 million illegal immigrants. “We can’t begin to talk about that,” he said, until we can limit people coming into the country illegally. But he hastened to add that there is “no easy answer” as to what to do with regard to those people. That is a far cry from off-the-cuff answers like “self-deportation” or simply waving the wand to offer citizenship to all those people.

I then asked him about President Obama’s Iran policy. Rubio replied, “Iran is an existential threat not only to Israel but to the region. This is a country that sees terrorism as part of statecraft.” He scolded the president for his first year’s approach (e.g., a YouTube message to Iran, “saying nothing” when the Green Revolution occurred). He was firm that we need those “crippling sanctions” but emphasized that “all options” need to remain on the table. Unlike the president, he did not downplay the efficacy of military action. To the contrary, his view was that it is Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons that is “so catastrophic,” not the potential use of force to prevent that capacity.

Rubio is more blunt than the average pol. He conceded that Republicans need to spend more time talking about the “replace” part of the GOP strategy to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. And he was dismissive of the White House’s lack of a position on whether the Senate should pass a budget. “Even the most disorganized person” has to stick to a budget, he argued. He proclaimed the notion that America we can operate without one as “weird.”

Rubio is willing to fight for less discretionary spending although he conceded that is “not enough” since entitlement spending is the true driver of the debt. When asked if the GOP would risk another government shutdown, he answered, “No one wants a shutdown, but we are headed toward the mother of all shutdowns when we run out of money.” He urged Americans to consider Europe’s sovereign debt predicament.

There is no doubt where he stands on defense spending or on entitlement reform, two issues which many Republicans would rather not address.

As to the defense-spending sequestration, he related that in Munich at the recent international conference, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta essentially admitted that there is “no way to comply” with the level of required budget cuts in a responsible matter. “It’s why I voted against the debt deal,” Rubio said.

As for Medicare, he chastised the president for doing no more than waiting for someone like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to come forward and then engaging in personal and partisan attacks. He said bluntly that “Medicare is going bankrupt” and if you oppose reform or offer no concrete reform proposal, as Obama has failed to do, you are consenting to the program’s demise.

Rubio is plainly a gifted speaker and the sort of charismatic personality that puts him at the top of the list for future presidential runs. He has firmly disclaimed interest in the vice presidential slot. But if things change in six months? Well, there is always hope for at least one charismatic, unifying candidate on the presidential ticket.