Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said Wednesday morning that the Republican Party needs to move into the 21st century.
"The challenge for the conservative movement, the challenge for every movement in America ... is applying [our] principles to the 21st century," he said to POLITICO's Mike Allen at Wednesday's Playbook Breakfast. "We applied them to the 20th century, but now we have to apply them to the 21st century."
The possible 2016 GOP presidential contender added that the party must do a better job of bringing limited-government conservatives into the fold as well.
"The Republican Party can do a better job of being a home for the limited government, free enterprise movement," he said. "I truly believe that the principles we stand for are the only way -- free enterprise, limited government -- is the only way to grow our middle class."
Still, he said Republicans have done a poor job of selling that message to voters.
"Sometimes people have forgotten the art of persuasion ... understanding what is the right thing for the country and working hard to convince people that it's the right thing for the country," he said.
Asked about the GOP's issues with young and Hispanic voters in last month's election, Rubio said he considers the country's changing demographics more of a "challenge" than a "danger" for the GOP.
"The fastest growing group of voters are voters that vote for candidates, not parties," he said.
And with Hispanic voters specifically, he said it's important to remember that the demographic is not monolithic and that many Hispanic voters are liberal Democrats for whom "nothing [Mitt] Romney and [Paul] Ryan could have done" to sway their votes.
Still, he said Republicans need to temper their harsh rhetoric on the issue of immigration.
"Unfortunately I think the Republican Party for many years allowed itself to be positioned as the anti-illegal [immigrants] party ... what we really need to be is the pro-legal [immigrants] party," he said.
Rubio expressed optimism that Congress can pass comprehensive immigration reform in the next two years.
"We understand that legal immigration is not just an important part of our heritage, it's an important part of our future," he said. "We're not talking about plagues of locusts, we're talking about people."
The Cuban-American senator -- his party's most prominent Hispanic face -- said that rather than working on one comprehensive bill, Congress should accomplish reform through a "comprehensive package of bills" on issues like a guest worker program, border security and e-Verify that checks employees' immigration status.
He also praised Mitt Romney, saying he hopes the former GOP nominee stays involved in GOP politics.
"I hope he's not going to disappear and I hope he does have a continuing role," Rubio said.
"[Romney] won places and has a lot of support, but he's also been successful at life," he added. "Mitt Romney is a role model as a person, as a father as a husband as a community leader."
On the issue of the fiscal cliff showdown, Rubio said he thinks Congress will reach a deal by Christmas Eve.
"Maybe I'm being optimistic, but yes [we'll have a deal]," he said. "I'm in the Senate, I know these guys, when the cameras are off and people are being people and not just senators on television -- we get it, this is important."
Asked if there were conditions under which he'd support raising taxes on the top 2 percent of earners, Rubio said tax increases would hurt economic growth and that he won't support anything that hurts growth.
"I just don't think that's a solution. For me, it's not about a pledge or millionaires and billionaires. I just think the number one issue is to grow the economy. It's not about taxes higher or lower, it's about growing the economy," he said.
"It's about growth, this stuff hurts growth," he continued. "So if the president has a tax increase that will help grow the economy, I'm happy to hear about it. ... I will vote against any plan that hurts growth because I think growth is our only solution. ... And I think raising taxes, particularly the way the president proposes, will hurt growth."
Rubio also addressed the controversy surrounding his recent comments to GQ about the age of the earth.
"Science says it's about four and a half billion years old and my faith teaches that that's not inconsistent," he clarified. "The answer I gave was actually trying to make the same point the president made a few years ago, and that is there is no scientific debate on the age of the earth. I mean, it's established pretty definitively as at least four and a half billion years old ... I was referring to a theological debate and which is a pretty healthy debate."
"The theological debate is how do you reconcile what science has definitively established with what you think your faith teaches? For me, actually, when it comes to the age of the earth there is no conflict: I believe that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and I think scientific advances give us insight into when he did it and how he did it," he said. "But I still believe God did it, And that's how I've been able to reconcile that and I think it's consistent with the teachings of my church. But other people have a deeper conflict and I just think in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever we believe."
"I don't regret it," he added, regarding his original answer to GQ. "I mean, I wish I would have given a better answer, a more succinct answer, but we went from talking about hip hop and then it got pivoted to the Earth -- I'm not a robot, I got caught off guard I guess."
Rubio said he respects President Barack Obama personally, despite their "deep policy differences."
"Let me just say that I have deep admiration for the way he's been able to balance probably the hardest job in the world with the most important job, as a father," he said, noting that he was "grateful" for a call from Obama when his daughter was injured a few weeks ago. "I have deep policy differences with the president and that's why I'm grateful we have a republic where we can debate it."
And on the question of 2016, for which Rubio is considered a potential presidential candidate, the Florida senator said he has "no idea" if he'll run -- though he has already visited the key early state of Iowa.
"I have a job now and the best thing I can do is to do the best I can at the job I have now," he said. "What I have learned from watching others, and from myself, is if you do your job you always have opportunities."
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