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Originally published Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 6:23 PM

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Conservatives gather to hear future hopefuls

Right-wing Republicans gathered at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference to get an early look at who might help the party win back the White House in 2016.

McClatchy Newspapers

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OXON HILL, Md. — Three rising Senate Republican stars — Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Tim Scott of South Carolina — rallied thousands of conservative activists Thursday in rousing speeches that signaled a passing of the torch to a younger, more diverse group of party leaders focused on winning back the White House.

With the Republican Party seeking to expand its reach among voters, Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, addressed the annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) as the early leader in the 2016 GOP presidential race, while Scott spoke as the first black Republican senator from the South since Reconstruction.

Paul appeared at the three-day conclave on the heels of his 13-hour Senate filibuster last week to protest President Obama’s initial refusal to rule out using drones to target suspected terrorists on U.S. soil.

Rubio, a charismatic first-term senator, took the stage to a standing ovation from the audience at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, across the Potomac River from the U.S. Capitol.

Dismissing “all this debate about infighting among conservatives” as exaggerated “foolish nonsense,” Rubio said core conservative principles had widespread appeal.

“Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot,” he said. “Just because we believe that all human life is worthy of protection at all stages of development does not make you a chauvinist.”

Rubio mocked those who accuse climate-change skeptics of denying science but ignore “the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception.”

Rubio brought the crowd to its feet again as he ridiculed critics who claim the Republican Party has no new ideas.

“We don’t need a new idea,” Rubio declared to loud cheers. “There is an idea. The idea’s called America, and it still works.”

Conspicuously absent from Rubio’s speech was any mention of his leading role in a new bipartisan push in Congress for immigration restructuring, a cause that many hard-line conservatives oppose.

Fresh from his high-profile filibuster against drone policy, Paul received a campaign-style welcome, with dozens of fans standing and waving red “Stand with Rand” posters.

Paul was more confrontational than Rubio in challenging his party to change and saying Republicans have fallen out of step with many Americans.

“The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” Paul said. “Our party is encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom. The new GOP will have to embrace liberty in both the economic and personal sphere.”

Scott mixed accounts of his rise from childhood poverty with denunciations of Obama’s health law and economic policies.

“Obamacare is an atrocity,” Scott said. “We’re talking about $800 billion in new taxes. This is awful legislation.”

Decrying the current budget impasse, Scott said, “With a $16 trillion debt and annual deficits of $1 trillion, we have to bring fiscal sanity back to Washington, D.C.”

Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Scott to replace former Sen. Jim DeMint after DeMint’s surprise retirement in January to head the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington research think tank.

Paul, the son of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas, is the oldest of the three first-term senators at 50. Scott is 47, while Rubio is 41.

Paul has said he’s weighing a 2016 presidential run, while Rubio has done nothing to discourage widespread depictions of him as an early Republican front-runner.

Plenty of other possible 2016 presidential contenders are on hand, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. But the gathering also is featuring appearances by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, outspoken conservatives who still carry weight with the party’s most passionate partisans for their vigorous criticism of the Obama administration. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who praised Obama’s hurricane response last fall, wasn’t invited.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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