Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at the 40th Annual Conservative Political Action Conference. (JIM LO SCALZO/EPA)

The future of the Republican Party took some shots at its recent past on Thursday, as two top potential 2016 White House hopefuls made a conspicuous effort to distance themselves from the past two GOP presidential nominees.

Speaking to activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Sens. Rand Paul (Ky) and Marco Rubio (Fla) offered sharp, and only slightly veiled, critiques of Mitt Romney and John McCain, the two most recent men to carry the party standard in presidential elections.

“The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” Paul said. “I don’t think we need to name any names here, do we?”

Although Paul didn’t mention McCain by name, the reference was clear after McCain last week labeled Paul and other members of the new generation of conservative Republicans “wacko birds.”

Speaking to the same crowd earlier, Rubio sought to cast himself as the anti-Romney, attacking some of Romney’s most controversial statements from the campaign, in which the former Massachusetts governor, in a surreptitiously recorded video, dismissed his chances with 47 percent of American voters because they were overly dependent on government and considered themselves victims.

Supporters of Sen. Rand Paul cheer as he speaks at the conference Thursday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

“Our people have not changed,” Rubio said. “The vast majority of the American people are hard-working taxpayers who take responsibility for their families, go to work every day, they pay their mortgage on time, they volunteer in their community. This is where the vast majority of the American people are. What’s changed is the world around us.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was a presidential candidate in 2012, joined in the attack. He said that Romney’s presidential loss says nothing about conservatism because Romney isn’t a conservative.

“The popular media narrative is that this country has shifted away from conservative ideals, as evidenced by the last two presidential elections. That’s what they say,” Perry said. “That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012.”

Rubio argued that globalization and technology have changed the game when it comes to the economy.

“Many people do the right thing,” he said. “For example, they pay their mortgages on time. And now, when the housing bubble came, they were stuck with the bill for bailing out the banks that caused it, for bailing out the people who took out mortgages they couldn’t afford to pay.”

Later in his speech, Rubio drew laughs by talking about a middle-class family that fit that description.

“They’re not freeloaders; they’re not liberals,” he said.

He closed with one of his biggest applause lines, alluding to arguments that the Republican Party needs to reinvent itself.

“We don’t need a new idea; the idea is called America, and it still works,” Rubio said.

Paul used his speech to offer an extensive defense of his 13-hour filibuster last week — the same effort that drew the ire of McCain and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). Over the course of those 13 hours, Paul pushed the Obama administration to clarify that it wouldn’t use drones against American citizens on American soil.

McCain and Graham suggested that Paul’s effort amounted to pointless grandstanding, with Graham even labeling him “ill-informed.”

“To those who would dismiss this debate as frivolous, I say tell that to the heroic young men and women who have sacrificed their limbs and lives,” Paul said. “Tell it to Sgt. J.D. Williams . . . who sacrificed himself to save his fellow soldiers. Tell J.D., who lost both legs and an arm, tell him his sacrifice was great but that we had to suspend the Bill of Rights he fought for.

“Yes, the filibuster was about drones, but also about much more. Do we have a Bill of Rights or not? Do we have a Constitution or not, and will we defend it?”

Paul echoed Rubio by suggesting that the GOP doesn’t need to reinvent itself, but instead get in touch with its true self.

“The Republican Party has to change, by going forward to the classical and timeless ideas enshrined in our Constitution,” he said. “When we understand that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then we will become the dominant national party again.”

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