The two banner names topping the list of vice presidential contenders kicked off the 2012 Faith & Freedom Conference in Washington D.C. Thursday. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (FL) and Rob Portman (OH), are rising stars in their party, but on Thursday, they played the rockstar and the comedian.
Rubio showed up with his new book in tow, signing dozens of bookplates for conference attendees who paid $30 a copy for “American Son” five days before it officially hits store shelves. The crowd went crazy for him, whooping and hollering as he delivered a speech with the swagger of a presidential front-runner.
Portman spoke first, and gave a speech to the evangelical audience grounded in his personal faith. It was personal and emotional — Portman choked when he talked about leaving President George H.W. Bush’s administration to care for his ailing mother. The crowd seemed to connect with Portman, but the speech drew only a polite standing ovation at the end.
After his speech he stopped to chat with a gaggle of reporters, answering questions on a wide range of topics, including Mitt Romney’s chances in Ohio (“I think it will be a close race, it always is. We’re a swing state.”) to his recent trip to Israel. Portman shrugged off a question over whether he was being officially vetted as a vice presidential candidate with a nod toward his perceived weakness — that he’s smart but boring.
“I hate to be boring,” he said to laughter, “but I’m not going to talk about that now.”
Portman continued taking questions, even as his handler kept trying to break the session up. He was a man showing he can take on a national press corps.
Rubio, on the other hand, gave a loud speech that emphasized the importance of faith and America’s connection to the Judeo-Christian tradition that had the audience on its feet. Here’s a sample:
“As frustrated as we may get with our republic and the fact that it’s not always the most efficient, I hope every single day in your prayers you give thanks to God that you live in one,” Rubio bellowed. That got a standing ovation.
After the speech, reporters were filed into a holding pen to watch Rubio sign the bookplates for attendees who bought his book. He ignored the one question shouted to him about the vice presidential race, and was shuttled away down the hall by staff.
Portman joked about being a nerd; Rubio swept through like he owned the place. It was clear from the applause Rubio received who the audience was more enthralled by. But organizers of the conference weren’t prepared to pick a frontrunner.
“I thought they were both terrific,” Faith & Freedom Chairman Ralph Reed told TPM. “Either one of them would be an asset to the ticket, as would just about anyone else that you see their name being bandied about.”
“Mitt Romney’s got an embarrassment of richest to choose from,” he said.