Rand Paul vs. Ted Cruz: Is 2016 big enough for both of them?

Two peas in the tea party pod, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are actually looking to do opposite things as candidates for the presidency. Mr. Paul wants to expand the Republican brand, Mr. Cruz wants to narrow it.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Maryland earlier this year. He is expected to announce his candidacy for president Tuesday.

In the Senate, tea party darlings Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky and Ted Cruz (R) of Texas have often stood shoulder-to-shoulder as allies.

In March 2013, when Senator Paul launched his nearly 13-hour talking filibuster opposing the nomination of John Brennan for Central Intelligence Agency director and condemning the use of drones, his freshman colleague from Texas helped him on the Senate floor by addressing legal concerns and reading aloud supportive Twitter comments.

Six months later, Paul returned the favor by putting in a cameo appearance when Senator Cruz staged his own 21-hour filibuster against the Affordable Care Act. The Cruz-a-thon led to a 16-day partial government shutdown that tea partyers strongly supported – even though it backfired with a plummet in GOP approval ratings.

With Paul announcing his presidential bid on Tuesday, however, he’s now competing with Cruz, who was the first to announce his candidacy on March 23. That raises the question as to which of them – if either, given the potentially crowded field – will carry the day for the anti-establishment wing of the party and whether either can broaden his appeal enough to win the nomination.

Despite being steeped in the same tea party brew – Paul was elected in the movement’s “wave” year of 2010 and Cruz followed in 2012 – the two men contrast sharply in style, substance, and strategy.

“Rand Paul’s public persona is so different from the one Cruz has adopted,” says Stephen Voss, associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “I don’t think they’re going to be pressing the same buttons.”

The tousle-haired and boyish looking Paul, emerging from a television studio in Ray-Bans and shorts, exudes “authenticity” – an observation once made by his “establishment” backer and fellow Kentuckian, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Some of the tech-savvy libertarian’s ideas – he favors a smaller United States footprint overseas and prison sentencing reform at home – stray from GOP orthodoxy.

Paul’s strategy is to grow the libertarian brand within the GOP by energizing new voters: young people and minorities. Last month he spoke at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas, and he’s reached out to African-Americans in Ferguson, Mo., in Detroit, and at historically black colleges.

Cruz, on the other hand, is buttoned-down and combative – not a hair out of place on his person or in his disciplined message of conservative values and hawkish foreign policy.

He’s a real thorn in the side of the GOP leadership, whether it’s Senator McConnell, who opposed the government shutdown, or House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, whose right-wing “Cruzers” in the House are greatly influenced by the outsized Texas senator.

Cruz’s strategy is to lock down the tea party vote and grow the conservative base by engaging more evangelicals. His personal narrative dovetails with this effort, given his born-again Baptist faith and his preacher father, who fled Cuba.

Over the Easter weekend, Cruz launched his first nationwide television ad, titled “Blessing.” The senator speaks of the “transformative love of Jesus Christ” and is shown saying grace with his family at the table. 

“Cruz is playing an all-in game. No one is going to be to his right,” says Ronald Rapoport, a political science professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. In 2014, the Texan passed Paul to become the top presidential choice among 20,000 tea party supporters, according to Professor Rapoport's survey of subscribers to FreedomWorks, a major tea party group.

Cruz's move to capture and mobilize the evangelical vote is a play to a significant voter base. In the 2012 general election, evangelicals accounted for 26 percent of the electorate. In the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, 44 percent of likely caucus participants in 2016 are born-again or evangelical Christians, according to a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll in January.  Evangelicals also figure prominently in early primary states such as South Carolina.

Last week, Cruz drew large crowds on a two-day swing through Iowa and has been wooing influential pastors there. He got a hefty bounce off his announcement in nationwide polls, moving into third place, and his fundraising has exceeded expectations, raising $4 million in his first eight days.

“The energy and enthusiasm we have seen has been overwhelming. It’s been nothing short of breathtaking,” he told congressional reporters at the end of his first week. But if former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (a former pastor) or former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania (a devout Catholic) enter the race, Cruz can expect some serious competition for religious conservatives – each has won an Iowa caucus.

Paul’s announcement in Kentucky, followed by his tour of New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa, and Nevada, is bound to generate its own buzz and dollars.

“It is difficult to imagine four better states for him to start off his campaign,” says Scott Lasley, chairman of the Kentucky’s Warren County Republican Party, with its seat in Bowling Green, Paul’s home town.

Mr. Lasley points out that Paul’s Libertarian father, Ron Paul, who three times ran for president and had a fiercely loyal following, did “fairly well” in the Iowa caucuses. The son can build on the father’s grass-roots network there, he says. New Hampshire is “independent minded” (state motto: Live Free or Die). South Carolina has a strong tea party base. And Nevada is another early caucus state, where the senior Paul “also made noise,” says Lasley.

Competitors now, both Paul and Cruz criticize each other – Paul claims Cruz is not electable, and Cruz says Paul is too soft on national security. Indeed, Paul has had to roll back his own comments and positions on the military – proposing in March to increase rather than decrease defense spending.

Paul “has to worry about being accused a flip-flopper,” cautions Professor Voss at the University of Kentucky. And for both candidates, “there’s going to be a challenge branching out from their base.”

The hard truth for Paul, Cruz, or any other candidate in the crowded GOP field is that no one can win the nomination by winning only one faction. The GOP has many wings – the business side, the tea party, Libertarians, neo-conservatives, social conservatives. One of the most instructive indicators of how this all might shake out is polling questions that ask which candidate is acceptable to primary voters – and which is not.

A March Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll published in March points to several leaders when GOP primary voters were given a list of names and asked whether they could or could not see themselves supporting him or her.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida – expected to announce next week – scores the highest in “could support,” with 56 percent (though 26 percent say they could not support him). Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker scores second highest, with 53 percent (but only 17 percent say they couldn’t support him). 

Interestingly, Senator Rubio first came to Washington with tremendous tea party support – though he’s slipped in favorability among that group as he’s broadened his appeal. Governor Walker, too, enjoyed strong grass-roots, conservative support as he battled public employee unions. But he’s also acceptable to more mainstream Republicans.

In the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, Paul leads Cruz, 49 to 40 percent, as more acceptable to primary voters. It’s an indication of greater electability, Paul would argue – but also perhaps why he’s not willing to give up his Senate seat, and will run for both.

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