(CNN) - Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida outlined elements of a platform to bridge what he termed the "opportunity gap" - a lack of favorable circumstances in which individuals could lift themselves into the middle class.
"One of the fundamental promises of America is the opportunity to make it to the middle class," Rubio said Tuesday, receiving a leadership award named in honor of the late conservative congressman, Cabinet secretary and GOP vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp.
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"But today, there is a growing opportunity gap developing. And millions of Americans worry that they may never achieve middle-class prosperity and stability and that their children will be trapped as well with the same life and the same problems."
His forward-looking theme only further stokes speculation about his interest in a run for the White House in 2016. He made no mention of 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, but did respond to a joke from Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was the party's vice presidential nominee and is also the subject of 2016 speculation.
Ryan joked that he and Rubio should meet up at a diner in Iowa and New Hampshire, two early states where retail politicking begins.
"I will not stand by and let the people of South Carolina be ignored," Rubio joked, referring to the traditional first-in-the-South presidential primary state.
Rubio's theme drew from a vein he frequently taps in his remarks, that the U.S. allows opportunities for those in the middle class that are not found elsewhere.
He outlined policies in energy production, monetary policy, healthcare, and education. "The federal government can play an important role in encouraging a vibrant economy and in equipping our people with the skills they need for 21st century middle class jobs," he said.
Rubio drew applause for his opposition to President Barack Obama's proposal to raise taxes on income above a certain threshold as part of a deficit reduction plan and deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.
"You can't open or grow a business if your taxes are too high or too uncertain. That is why I oppose the president's plan to raise taxes," he said. "It isn't about a pledge. It isn't about protecting millionaires and billionaires.
"For me, it's about the fact that the tax increases he wants would fail to make even a small dent in the debt but would hurt middle-class businesses and the people who work for them."
He highlighted his own story: one of four children born to working class Cuban immigrant parents, including a father who tended bar. All his siblings are now "college graduates working in a professional field and enjoying a standard of living significantly higher than our parents."
"Our story is not rare in America. But it is rare in the world," he said. "Had we been born almost anywhere else, at any other time in history, our lives would have been very different."
Without aid to pay for colleges and good paying jobs for his parents, Rubio said, "I would probably have been a very opinionated bartender."
Near the end of his speech, Rubio seemed to push back against defeated Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's controversial "47%" comments in which he suggested that nearly half of Americans are dependent on the federal government and see themselves as victims.
"Some say that our problem is that the American people have changed. That too many people want things from government. But I am still convinced that the overwhelming majority of our people just want what my parents had, a chance. A real chance to earn a good living, and provide even better opportunities for their children," Rubio said.