NEW YORK -- Less than a month after Mitt Romney's bid for the White House was suddenly snuffed out, his vice-presidential nominee and another top surrogate -- and fellow potential 2016 presidential candidate --delivered dueling speeches Tuesday that attempted to reframe Republican philosophy in what was a strikingly "Un-Romney" tone.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) spoke first at the dinner, followed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who was receiving an award from the foundation of Ryan's mentor, former Rep. Jack Kemp. Ryan's speech -- his first public address since the Nov. 6th loss -- echoed themes from his late October speech in Ohio on economic mobility, but little else from the fall campaign.
"We have a compassionate vision based on ideas that work - but sometimes we don't do a good job of laying out that vision. We need to do better," Ryan said Tuesday night at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, an almost word-for-word recitation of what he said Oct. 24th in Cleveland.
It was in that policy speech just two weeks before Election Day that a glimpse of what the post-election Wisconsin congressman would look like. The Ohio speech was Ryan's brainchild on the trail, reflecting his personal passion for the topic, and the idea of an upwardly mobile society that could be built on Republican principles.
The speech was the only one of its kind Ryan gave during the 80-plus days he was on Romney's ticket, and perhaps reflecting concerns that Ryan's remarks were off the nominee's messaging, Romney held his own event during Ryan's speech that day, which soaked up news coverage.
But speaking at the Kemp dinner Tuesday evening, the seven-term congressman launched himself back onto the national stage without Romney or his advisers guiding the message.
While Ryan praised Romney by name as someone who he felt "would have been a great president," he also very publically distanced himself from his former ticket mate’s "47 percent" remarks to donors at a private fundraiser last spring.
In the remarks, captured by surreptitious video recording, Romney claimed 47 percent of Americans are "dependent upon government" and would therefor only vote for President Barack Obama and his vision of a larger government.
"Both parties tend to divide Americans into 'our voters' and 'their voters,'” Ryan said. “But Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American. I believe we can turn the engines of upward mobility back on, so that no one is left out from the promise of America. But it's going to require a bold departure from the approach that government has taken for the last five decades."
If Ryan was cautiously backing away from the GOP ticket's rhetoric in his remarks, Rubio turned on his heel and walked away from it completely. In his 4,185 words of prepared remarks, two words were notably missing: Mitt and Romney.
The Florida senator and Tea Party darling focused his remarks on a segment of the population whose imagination the Romney campaign tried, and largely failed, to capture: the middle class.
Praising the large and stable middle class as something uniquely American, Rubio took aim at what he called a growing "opportunity gap" between those born into the middle class and those who are left to struggle from humbler means to try and get there.
"For those of us blessed with the opportunity to serve our country in government, one of the fundamental challenges before us is to find an appropriate and sustainable role for government in closing this gap between the dreams of millions of Americans and the opportunities for them to actually realize them," Rubio said, according to prepared remarks.
"The key to a vibrant middle class is an abundance of jobs that pay enough so that workers can provide for themselves and their families, enjoy leisure time, save for retirement, and pay for their children’s education, so they can grow up and earn even more than their parents."
Compare that to Romney's own comments on what he called the "opportunity society" he hoped to create, which focused more on the idea of government getting out of the way of business, which could lift up the American people.
"I will spend the next four years rebuilding the foundation of our opportunity society, led by free people and their free enterprises," Romney said in a speech in Wisconsin March 30th. "The only real solution to help communities devastated by lost jobs is more jobs. President Obama never seems to have understood the basic point that a plant closes when the business starts to lose money. So when the president attacks businesses for making money, and when his policies make it more difficult for businesses to make money, he's also attacking the very communities he wanted to help."
Romney's rhetoric toward the middle class focused, as did much of his campaign, on creating jobs. His five-point plan for creating jobs and helping the middle class touched on macro issues like controlling debt, supporting free trade and the amorphous phrase "champion small business."
That type of tone, appealing to the “job creators” more than those looking for work could have led to the polling data First Read noted this morning: Obama beat Romney by 10 points (53%-43%) on which candidate was more in touch with people like you, and, 53% said Romney's policies would favor the rich (compared to just 10% for Obama).
And while Rubio's policy prescriptions rarely deviated from Republican orthodoxy (he noted he opposed tax increases, and praised faith-based and community organizations as key to stemming "societal breakdown,") he used even his personal story -- and son-of-immigrants background -- to create a contrast with the former Republican standard bearer and paint the Republican Party as not just the party of the wealthy.
Whereas Romney infamously noted his well-to-do friends (NASCAR and NFL team owners have dubious mentions in the campaign record) and regularly highlighted successful entrepreneurs he had met on the campaign trail, Rubio closed with an anecdote of someone further down the income ladder.
"A few weeks ago, I was giving a speech at a fancy hotel in New York City,” he said. “When I arrived in the banquet hall, I was approached by a group of three uniformed employees from the hotels catering department. They had seen my speech at the Republican Convention, where I told the story of my father the ‘Banquet Bartender.’ And they had a gift for me. They presented me with this name tag, which says, ‘Rubio, Banquet Bartender.’ That moment reminded me that there are millions of Mario Rubios all across America today. They aren’t looking for a handout; they just want a job that provides for their families."
With both men striking similar notes it seems clear that at least these top Republican leaders see an inclusive message as a possible path back from the wilderness. Whether either of Tuesday's speakers will become the messenger, remains to be seen.
Garrett Haake and Alex Moe were both 2012 presidential campaign embeds for NBC News. Haake covered Mitt Romney and Moe covered Paul Ryan and others.