Should the Republican party abandon social conservatism? Take a turn toward non-interventionism? Moderate on taxes and spending? While a number of pundits and politicians have said ‘yes’ to one or more of these questions, especially since Mitt Romney’s loss in November, Marco Rubio answered with a resounding ‘no’ during his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday…

“There’s this fear that America has changed, that our people have changed, that we’ve reached this point in time where we have too many people who want too much from government and maybe the changes that happened are irreversible and we’ll never be the same again,” Rubio said. “I want you to understand that’s not true.” Speaking of one economically struggling family he knows, Rubio said, “They’re not freeloaders. They’re not liberals.” But if they don’t see Republicans offering solutions, they might conclude government is the only answer.

Rubio has been in the news for the past couple of months making a push for immigration reform–a stance that, although squarely in line with the only Republicans to win the presidency in the past 40 years, puts him at odds with many conservatives. But during his CPAC speech, Rubio didn’t mention immigration. Rather Rubio argued that the three-legged stool of the conservative movement is as sturdy as ever.

Paul’s positions may sound refreshing today, but they would have been much more in keeping in a bygone era. It wasn’t until Republicans embraced the more Rubio-esque ideas that they began winning elections. That’s why his ideas are now considered “old.”

That’s not to say past is prologue. Maybe the world has changed? But it is to say that the old versus new paradigm is more complicated.

The reason the Rubio vs. Paul contrast is so exciting is that on one hand, both are young senators elected in 2010 during the tea party zeitgeist. But on the other hand, they really do represent an ideological clash over the heart and soul of the GOP.

Before Paul spoke, his supporters had distributed STAND WITH RAND posters that featured a cool, “Mad Men”-style rendering of the senator. (Indeed, a large number of people stood the entire time Paul spoke.) But there’s no doubt that many of those cheering Paul were doing so mostly because he had the courage and the smarts not just to stand up to the White House but to back the Obama administration into a corner over presidential power. To them, the specific issue involved in the filibuster — drone warfare — was less important than the fact that Paul took a stand…

Rubio, nearly a decade younger than Paul, delivered a smoother and easier message. “What I sense from a lot of people that I’ve been talking to is this fear that somehow America has changed, that our people have changed,” he said. “I want you to understand that’s not true. Our people have not changed.” Americans still work hard, still pay their taxes, still volunteer in their hometowns, Rubio said. Yes, the world has changed, particularly the world of technology. But traditions — traditional marriage, traditional values — are still good…

One serious problem for the party is that there is no living embodiment of the our-values-live-on message. There’s no beloved former president who can stand before the crowd and remind them of the greatness of their cause. Reagan is gone, and George H.W. Bush, respected but not loved like his predecessor, is fading from the scene. The natural candidate for the job, of course, would be George W. Bush, but that’s just not possible. While conservatives respect Bush for the job he did protecting the country from terrorist attack after Sept. 11, in many ways they are still struggling to climb out of the hole he dug for them.

Those Democratic events where a beloved Bill Clinton wows the crowd? That can’t happen for Republicans. Not until the new leader steps out of the pack.

How long can the lovefest last? Once the mass Republican audience—especially Mitt Romney voters—really thinks about the implications of Rand Paul and his ideas, the post-filibuster love may sour. Paul’s chief of staff Doug Stafford told Business Insider, “Rand is one of the only people who can speak to libertarians, social conservatives, as well as your average mainstream Republican voter.” In theory, yes.

But even in areas where Paul’s libertarianism shouldn’t be too controversial—like his five-year path to a balanced budget—hardly any of his political colleagues are willing to play along, and there’s no mass constituency forcing them to. It’s not likely the rest of his party – whether rank-and-file voter or office-seeking politician – will get enthusiastic about his attempts to curb the federal drug war either.

Paul’s problems with Republican orthodoxy run deeper still. In order to keep her head from exploding from cognitive dissonance while remaining on the new right side of Republican history, the Washington Post’s right-wing columnist Jennifer Rubin praised Paul’s filibuster by claiming that he “wasn’t attacking the war on terror.”

But Paul absolutely was attacking the war on terror…

No issue better illustrates Rubio’s connection to the failed Republican Washington establishment than his embrace of President Bush’s last great policy failure: amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants currently in the United States. He is currently working with McCain on another immigration bill right now.

In contrast to his free enterprise rhetoric, however, Rubio’s immigration plan is just a continuation of the crony capitalist policies that so compromised Bush’s big government compassionate conservatism. As The Washington Examiner‘s Tim Carney notes today, Rubio’s immigration plan includes a permanent guest worker program that allows farmers to inflate their workers wages by offering something no other employer can: a path to citizenship…

Do conservative activists want to go back to the big government compassionate conservatism policies of Bush and McCain? Or do they want to explore the libertarian path being paved by Paul?

I think Poulos is onto something regarding younger voters – charitably defined as anyone under 45 years old – regardless of political ideology. The expectations for government are changing in all sorts of unanticipated ways. A majority of Americans continues to say that government is doing too much but a majority also wants the government to provide basic safety net functions. Folks such as Ryan and Barack Obama seem to read that situation as one in which the state can and should continue to provide not simply for the poorest among us but for the vast “middle class” that usually includes about 90 percent of people. That was George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism – and Ryan voted for No Child Left Behind, Medicare drugs, and TARP and auto bailouts – and it’s Obama’s expansive notions as well. I think it’s credible to see Ryan (and many conservative Republicans, Obama, and the Senate Democrats (who have zero pulse among them) as in the same basic camp of still expecting the government to be a warm blanket that pretty much covers everything you do in your regular day.

What’s different now is that there is an alternative out there – in the form of characters such as Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and other “wacko birds” – that is looking increasingly viable. When you’ve got conservative and libertarian Republicans attacking the garrison state for 13 hours straight and also championing copyright and IP reform, gay marriage, pot and hemp legalization, even self-styled “Young Guns” such as Paul Ryan and historically youthful presidents such as Barack Obama start looking pretty old pretty quickly.

As for predictions on who will win the CPAC straw poll on Saturday, Bob Beckel said he is “willing to wager any amount of money” that it will be Rand Paul. And after the enthusiasm that greeted his speech earlier today, that seems like a fair assumption. Dana Perino argued that the winner of CPAC straw poll almost never goes on to win the Republican presidential nomination, so the importance of that honor, especially this far from 2016, may be insignificant…

“Rand Paul is the one guy that worries me very much and most Democrats,” Beckel answered. “In fact, there is some real fear the guy could actually take off.” His colleagues weren’t buying that he was being sincere, but there is some truth to what Beckel was saying. If there’s one Republican who’s riding high from his filibuster and now CPAC, it has to be Rand Paul.