Rubio makes his Iowa debut as possible ‘future’ of the Republican Party

This was Rubio’s coming out party, his first chance to woo the voters that will make the first determination about who will become the Republican nominee for president four years from now.

By all accounts, he hit a home run.

“I heard a number of people indicate to me that, ‘My gosh, why wasn’t he on the ticket?’ And so that alone indicates to me that he’s a viable potential candidate for 2016,” said Doug Gross, a veteran Republican political operative in Iowa.

Gross pointed to Rubio’s Cuban-American roots, which could have potentially helped the Republican Party attract Latino voters — particularly those in Florida, Rubio’s home state — in the 2012 election, had Rubio been selected to join Romney’s ticket.

But people also “liked his message,” Gross said. “Because his message was not demagoguery in any way. It was very thoughtful and on point and consistent – consistent with Republican philosophy, but also pushed us on things like immigration and education, to think about things in a different way.”

“I have long said that when Marco Rubio speaks, he speaks to my heart in a way that’s, I think, unique,” said Rep. Steve King, who attended the fundraiser after a day spent duck hunting. “And that was true here tonight.” (RELATED: Rubio says Romney’s post-election comments haven’t hurt the party)

“I was sitting next to our secretary of agriculture, Bill Northey, and he remarked on how when Marco Rubio talks about American exceptionalism, he does so in a way that we understand it, and it sweeps us up and makes us feel good and proud and also gives us a sense of goal and destiny,” King added.

“I think he’s the right messenger for the Republican message to get delivered,” said Ed Failor Jr., a longtime Iowa Republican operative. That message, he said, was about the necessity of ensuring that the middle class succeeds, and how “integral” that is to “the model of free enterprise.”

“I think he’s a good articulator of that message, because it’s his real life experience, and people can see it in him. I think it’s inspiring, and I think he’s right about how we need to message going forward for Republicans,” Failor said. “It is about what he talks about, the American experience. There is a reason why people are lining up to come here, still, and nobody’s lining up to get out.”

Even before they heard him speak on Saturday, Iowans were attracted to Rubio. Branstad said the fundraiser generated more than $600,000, a total he said was greater than he had raised before in any single event.