At CPAC, Marco Rubio ducks a challenge

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland 14 March 2013 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Florida Senator Marco Rubio is tipped as a 2016 White House contender

Conservatives are gathering in Washington for their first big conference since their election defeat. But if they are looking for leadership, I am not sure they are in the right place.

Chris Christie, the New Jersey Governor who some see as the Republican's hope, was not welcome. This was partly because he was friendly with the president after the super storm Sandy struck his state.

Most at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) would probably intellectually accept something has to change. But few are in the mood for compromise or listening to those who make nice with the president.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul got a big round of applause when he declared President Obama's government was out of control.

"We desperately need a new course and new leadership," he said.

Libertarian blend

That comes perilously near dodging the fact that, like it or not, Mr Obama has been re-elected.

He did wag his finger in the direction of last year's Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney ("we know who's to blame - we don't have to say") and accused his party of being "stale and moss-covered".

He said it had suffered because of an inconsistent view of freedom - it had to embrace "economic and personal freedom".

This means combining the traditional conservative message of small government with an anti-authoritarian appeal to stoners - Sen Paul went out of his way to say that people should not be put in prison for non-violent drug offences.

This heady mixture was exactly his dad's prescription during last year's Republican primaries. I have seen for myself that it does reach a crowd who would usually be left cold by the Republicans.

It has the benefit of being logically consistent and I suspect it is an important long-term trend. But I doubt libertarianism will be the course the party takes over the next few years.

Digging out of a hole

Marco Rubio's speech was more interesting. The crowd loved his closing line, a defiant stance against the idea of root-and-branch change: "We don't need a new idea. The idea is called America, and it still works."

He was hardline on abortion. He found a clever way of sounding hardline on gay marriage while suggesting he wouldn't want to ban it at a federal level, saying: "Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot."

He also continued the job he began in his State of the Union response, distancing his party from Mr Romney's infamous 47% comments.

"They're not free-loaders; they're not liberals," he said of middle-class families in trouble with their mortgage.

This is an important re-balancing. But for any conservative party to find itself in the position of having to insist it is the party of ordinary people, not just the rich, is pretty poor.

It is basic stuff. It is not exactly daring. If they have gotten to the point when the job has to be done, then they are in a pretty big hole.

But the really notable thing about Sen Rubio's speech is that he ducked talking about immigration reform. It is his big subject and one of his party's biggest challenges if it is going to pick up Latino votes.

It's also the one area where Republicans and Democrats might really do a deal within the next few months.

To not even mention it in front of a conservative audience might be smart, in the short-term.

But it is not what leadership looks like.

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