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In hall packed with conservatives, Marco Rubio brings acclaim and laughter

@CAdamsMcClatchy

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told a gathering of conservative activists from around the country Friday morning that America doesn’t owe him anything – but that he owes a “debt to America that I will never be able to repay.”

Before a mostly-full ballroom at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, the Republican and potential presidential candidate recounted his personal history, one that took his parents – with little money, no connections, and limited education – from Cuba to South Florida.

“Less than four decades later, all four of their children live the lives and the dreams that my parents once had for themselves,” Rubio told the gathering. “For me, America isn’t just a country. It’s the place that literally changed the history of my family.”

The possible path to 2016 is tricky and tight for Rubio, once a darling of the nation’s conservatives but now treated skeptically by many. Despite one of the most-conservative voting records in the U.S. Senate, Rubio lost many of his conservative fans in 2013, when he pushed a bipartisan overhaul of the nation’s immigration system that made it through the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives.

Many conservatives lambasted him for his role, and to this day some hold it against him. In a potentially crowded GOP presidential field – some with conservative credentials superior to Rubio’s – standing out before this important constituency could be difficult.

In attendance were the heavyweights of today’s GOP, as well as the thought leaders, pundits and conservatives Rubio needs to reach and persuade in order for him to be a viable contender in 2016. Nearly all the potential 2016 Republican contenders have or will make appearances at event, and the winner of a straw poll for attendees to pick their favorite will be announced Saturday.

The first-term senator from West Miami, who emerged on the national scene in 2010, both gave a speech to the crowd and was interviewed on stage by a conservative who excited the crowd as much or more than some of the candidates have: Fox News personality Sean Hannity.

In his six-minute opening, Rubio excited the crowd a dozen times, bringing extended applause and sometimes laughter with barbs at the Obama administration.

Addressing both foreign policy and domestic themes, Rubio riffed on several “imagine” statements –- conjuring what a new direction for the nation could bring.

Imagine if we repealed and replaced ObamaCare, he said to applause.

“Imagine if we had leaders that understood that the family, not government, is the most important organization in society,” he said to more applause.

“Imagine if our laws protected innocent human life, from conception to natural death,” he said to even-bigger applause.

And finally, to both applause and raucous laughter: “Imagine if we had a president who doesn’t travel the world bad-mouthing America. After all, that’s the U.N.’s job.”

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