The pair of conservative responses to President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address—the official Republican rebuttal offered by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and the Tea Party response by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul—highlighted the internal debate currently going on within the GOP following the disappointing 2012 election. One was a salesman trying to expand his market share (Rubio); the other was a preacher sermonizing to his choir (Paul).
"The argument I would make is Marco Rubio's was a general election response and Rand Paul's was a primary election response," says John Brabender, a Republican strategist who served as a senior adviser for Rick Santorum's presidential campaign. "I think the leadership of the Republican Party is wide-open right now."
While the two conservatives hit on similar themes, such as opposing increased government spending, further tax increases and exercising constraints on executive power, they also had key differences, he says, particularly on issues such as federal defense spending, and who deserves blame for the country's deficit.
"On foreign policy, America continues to be indispensable to the goal of global liberty, prosperity and safeguarding human rights," Rubio said. "The world is a better place when America is the strongest nation on earth."
Paul, however, said Republicans, as well as Democrats, needed to give up on their "sacred cows."
"It is time Democrats admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred, and it is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud," he said. Paul also channeled the pervasive 'throw the bums out' Tea Party mantra when he asserted that if lawmakers refused to follow their own rules or pass a budget voters should, "sweep the place clean. Limit their terms and send them home."
Ken Hoagland, chairman of Restore America's Voice, a conservative Super PAC, says recent elections have proven to both Republicans and Democrats that voters want budget austerity, but so-called Tea Party influence may be waning.
"There is a general sense among the public that the cost and size of government is perhaps not what it should be," he says. "I thought Senator Paul stuck closer to that sentiment that we saw. Now the Tea Party may not have the same kind of influence today that it did in 2010, but the legitimate concerns still exist and reverberate really across the population and I thought that his remarks reflected that."
Hoagland also praises both Paul and Rubio for their conciliatory remarks on immigration reform.
"My parents immigrated here," said Rubio, who is Cuban-American.
Paul connected immigration reform to economics.
"We are the party that embraces hard work and ingenuity, therefore we must be the party that embraces the immigrant who wants to come to come to America for a better future," he said. "We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities."
Mike Franc, vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., says while both Paul and Rubio were elected in 2010 with as Tea Party insurgents, it was Paul who truly delivered on the rhetoric.
"The dividing line is better understood to be not so much policy and philosophy as tactics," he says of the two speeches.
"[Paul's] was an inside-outside kind of a dynamic, an 'us-versus-them' with 'them' being Washington, but he was almost looking at the dividing line not so much as Republican and Democrat but liberal and conservative," he says.
Rubio's speech offered a softer tone and more intimate presentation, referencing his parents as well as his own student loans, Franc says.
"He was speaking to a wider audience and he was trying to explain how the Republican principles that are at work are overwhelmingly going to improve the quality of life of various people and he laid out his story," he says.
The pair of responses, equal in their opposition to most of the ideas Obama laid out, offered insight into how the alleged 'soul-searching' of the Republican Party is carrying forward. The only thing that's truly clear—besides Rubio and Paul cementing themselves as key players in the party's future—is that Republicans still haven't picked a single direction to march in, or even if it needs to.