ALTOONA, Iowa – As the Republican Party regroups after Mitt Romney’s defeat, the message Saturday night at Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s birthday fundraiser was “turn the page” and “look to the future” — and what that future apparently holds is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the event’s featured speaker.
Rubio was invited to speak at the event around Sept. 1, Branstad told The Daily Caller, and had Romney won, the atmosphere might have been a bit different.
But only 11 days after voters went to the polls and Republicans came up short, Rubio was speaking to a crowd that had trained its sights squarely on 2016. (RELATED OPINION: Why Rubio is likely to lead 2016 GOP presidential pack)
In his speech, Rubio weaved together the personal and the economic. He discussed the importance of a stable family life to a stable economy, and how critical the success of the middle class is not just to the country’s financial situation, but also to its place in the world. American exceptionalism, Rubio said, is important to every nation, not just the United States.
“The way to turn our economy around is not by making rich people poorer; it’s by making poor people richer,” Rubio said.
The Florida senator talked about the need to improve the country’s immigration system and develop a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. He also emphasized the importance of education reform, which he said is necessary to ensure that future generations are competitive in the global economy.
“People understand that we need to do something to address those issues, and they want to do that in a reasonable and responsible way,” Rubio told the crowd.
Rubio also talked about his personal history. He reminded attendees that his parents immigrated to the United States and gave him the opportunity to attend college and become a senator.
It’s that personal story that has led several Iowa Republicans to declare Rubio “the future” of the Republican Party.
“I just think he’s the future,” Branstad told TheDC. “He’s the kind of leadership that we need, and I think he’s a very intelligent, articulate, and he is a great example of the American dream, and that’s exactly what we have to make available for more and more people.”
“I just thought, you know, it’s a great way to kind of turn the page, look to the future, and he’s somebody that I think is going to be a real leader for this country in the future,” Branstad said, explaining why he had invited Rubio to keynote his birthday party fundraiser.
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.
“You saw that people were lined up all the way to the back of the room wanting to talk to him,” Gross pointed out. “So he’s got this sort of rock star mentality right now that George W. had as well, that’s really valuable too.”
Rubio also upped the formality of the event, according to one attendee, who said that the fundraiser had been much more of a “jeans and khakis” affair last year. This time around, most attendees showed up in suits.
But Rubio quickly brushed off any suggestion that his appearance in Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest every four years, had anything to do with the 2016 presidential race.
When asked why he was in Iowa on Saturday, Rubio simply and enthusiastically replied, “For Governor Branstad’s birthday!”
“I am not, nor will I ever be, a candidate for … offensive coordinator of Iowa,” Rubio joked in his speech. “I know there’s rumors.”
Branstad, too, denied that he was trying to encourage Rubio to run for president by inviting him to the event.
“They’re all good guys, and let me just say, I will welcome them to Iowa too,” Branstad said, when asked why he had picked Rubio to headline the fundraiser instead of other likely presidential hopefuls, like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.