As the Republican Party ponders its future, this year's Conservative Political Action Conference showcased two men who could be its leader: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who activists saw as the man who can unite their movement, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has staked his claim to be the GOP's fighting heart.
United in many of their political beliefs, the two stars of the conservative youth movement bring different styles — and possibly different goals — to what most Republican analysts expect to be a party-defining 2016 presidential primary.
Mr. Rubio, 41, bounded onto the stage at CPAC to the pop song "What Makes You Beautiful" by the boy group One Direction, while Mr. Paul, 50, climbed onto stage to "Enter Sandman" by the heavy-metal band "Metallica." Mr. Rubio wore what appeared to be a newly pressed suit, while Mr. Paul sported blue jeans, brown cowboy boots and a white shirt with a rumpled collar.
And over the course of their roughly 20-minute speeches, both called on the party to be the voice of the middle class in America, but, much like their entrance music and choice of wardrobe, they did so in different fashions.
Mr. Rubio, a masterful orator, talked optimistically about the nation's future, while staking out traditional conservative positions on fiscal and social issues — all without shaking his fist at the GOP establishment or mentioning his pet issue, immigration, which continues to divide conservatives and the Republican Party.
Mr. Paul, meanwhile, issued a call to arms against the Republican Party, saying the "GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered" and calling for a "new GOP" that he said must make liberty its "backbone."
"Obviously Rubio is dynamic and what people would consider a more traditional political speaker," said Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. "That kind of fired up the crowd, more with the style, though he had substance too — but he had more of a persona of a political guy. Where, I think, Rand Paul was more staid, more deliberate on what he had to say, and his appeal was the message. So you had this very good contrast, literally back-to-back, where you got to see the two directions of the Republican Party."
Charlie Gerow, a member of the American Conservative Union board, said "style matters" because it is the first perception that voters have of a candidate and it can be more important that what someone says.
"The key to a winning style is authenticity — keeping it real is vital," Mr. Gerow said. "The difference between the style of Marco Rubio and Rand Paul is Rubio is more polished, professional and right out of central casting, whereas Paul is more of a 'walk-on' with a more rough hewn and folksy style. But that may be what folks are looking for in 2016 after being turned off by eight years of Obama's slick phoniness."
Mr. Rubio spoke first, stressing that states have the power to define traditional marriage, that life begins at conception and that only way to solve the nation's fiscal problems and get more people jobs is "the combination of fiscal discipline and rapid economic growth."
"There is no tax increase in the world that will solve our long-term debt problem," he said.
Mr. Paul followed Mr. Rubio, arguing that both parties trample on the U.S. Constitution, and mocked the outcry over the recent "sequester" cuts, saying the government still does far too much and extends too deeply into Americans' lives.
"The new GOP will need to embrace liberty in the economic and personal sphere. If we are going to have a Republican Party that can win, liberty needs to be the backbone of the GOP," he said, calling for the budget to be balanced in five years — or half the time House Republicans have proposed.
Mr. Paul was still riding high from his filibuster earlier this month of John O. Brennan, President Obama's nominee to head the CIA. Mr. Paul led a 13-hour hold-the-floor filibuster to draw attention to the Obama administration's drone strike policy.
Activists noted the difference in the two men's approaches.
"I think Sen. Paul — I think it was a little bit more of a confrontational speech in terms of challenge the Republican Party," said Christian Callahan, 54, from Chester County, Pa. "I thought Sen. Rubio's speech was a little more trying to get us to be more inclusive and to pull us all together, whereas Sen. Paul was more of a challenge and to maybe, as he said, the old guard GOP's grown some moss, so that was a not-so-veiled poke at Sen. [John] McCain."
Both senators, elected in the tea party wave of 2010, have seen their political stock rise since the 2012 election, where presidential nominee Mitt Romney struggled to unify his party and seemed befuddled by the fight with Mr. Obama.
Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, one of the movement's senior voices, delivered her blunt assessment over the weekend, telling the thousands that turned out for the three-day event in Prince George's County — billed as "America's Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives — New Challenges, Timeless Principles" — that the party establishment has made a habit of picking losers in presidential races.
"The fight we have, and the fight I want you to engage in, is the establishment against the grass roots," she said. "The establishment has given us a whole series of losers. Bob Dole and John McCain. Mitt Romney."
Hours later, Mr. Paul won the 2013 Washington Times-CPAC presidential preference straw poll, with Mr. Rubio finishing a close second — a result that spoke to their mounting popularity among grass-roots conservatives.
"In terms of their style, their approach to the American situations that might come up while they are president, I think Rubio is lovely and would had a good approach, but I think I would prefer a thoughtful, well-considered Rand Paul," said Holly Prehn, a Maryland resident in her 50s.
Richard Ferguson, 64, an assistant superintendent of schools in Alabama, said both men impressed him.
"I think the definition of what is conservative is really evolving right now, and I think those are the two people who are going to help define that more than the others," he said.
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