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How one Senate conservative sizes up the GOP presidential candidates

Sen. Mike Lee is friends with Republican presidential candidates Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio, who is expected to throw his hat in the ring on Monday evening.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Sen. Mike Lee, who serves on the Senate’s Judiciary, Armed Services, and Energy Committees speaks at a Monitor-hosted breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel on Friday in Washington, D.C.

Who better to comment on the senators aiming for the GOP presidential nomination than their tea party compatriot, Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah?

At a breakfast hosted by the Monitor on Friday, Senator Lee, who rode the tea party wave to Congress in a stunning primary upset in 2010, shared his thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of Republican presidential candidates Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is expected to throw his hat in the ring on Monday evening.

The congenial Lee, who has been in the trenches filibustering with Senator Cruz over the Affordable Care Act and writing tax legislation with Senator Rubio, wasn’t ready to endorse any one of his three friends. But here are his brief takes on his fellow Senate conservatives:

Rand Paul: The libertarian senator who made his presidential ambitions formal on Tuesday studies up on legislation and constitutional issues, according to Lee. At his announcement Tuesday, Senator Paul touted his resolution that would require senators to read legislation before they vote on it.

Lee recalls his first few weeks in office, when he and Paul were heading to the Senate floor for a vote. “Rand asked me how I was going to vote on a particular bill, and I told him I was going to vote for it, and he identified some fairly technical constitutional concern. I didn’t share his concern, but I was impressed that he was willing to do the work to find it.”

Paul’s biggest problem, says Lee, “will be to explain his foreign policy views.” The Kentuckian has a hands-off view of foreign policy – some would say almost isolationist. But he has had to modify or even reverse his positions because of the rise of the Islamic State and growing concern over Iran’s nuclear program.

Ted Cruz: Lee and Cruz have similar legal backgrounds, including working as law clerks at the US Supreme Court. They are ideologically close, Lee says. The Utahan lauds Cruz’s “passion” – most visible to Americans in the 21-hour filibuster that Cruz (with an appearance from Lee) held against Obamacare in the fall of 2013. It eventually led to the partial government shutdown, for which Lee said President Obama shares blame.

“I like his passion, and I like his dedication to conservative principles, and his willingness to fight, even when it’s hard,” Lee says of his friend. But some of those same characteristics have also been described as an Achilles’ heel for the Texan, Lee points out.

He describes Cruz’s appeal to the “grass-roots movement” as his great strength, but also says Cruz will need to demonstrate that he can “appeal to others in the party” and to enough voters outside the party to win the White House. “He’s working very hard at that,” Lee said.

Marco Rubio:  The son of Cuban immigrants is the most gifted communicator in the current field of GOP hopefuls, Lee says: “I don’t know that we have any other candidate who is as good as Rubio is at communicating, at delivering a speech and inviting the audience into a kind of emotional journey as he speaks. He’s one of these guys who can bring grown men to tears very quickly with emotion.”

Rubio often mentions his years growing up with a mother who worked as a hotel maid and a father who tended bar. The young, freshman senator is known for working his personal story and his values into a crescendo of patriotic rhetoric.

Rubio’s challenge, in Lee's view, is that he was a member of the bipartisan Senate “gang of eight” that forged a comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013 (it died in the House). Many Republicans objected to the bill because it included a path to citizenship (albeit a lengthy one and involving fines) for many of the nation’s undocumented immigrants. They also criticized it as a large, complex bill.

Lee was at the breakfast to pitch his latest book, “Our Lost Constitution.” The senator was asked whether he favored a constitutional convention to pass a balanced budget amendment.

According to The Washington Post, Republican state legislators are within striking distance of having the required two-thirds of state legislatures call for a convention, whose amendment would then need the ratification of three-fourths of the states. A convention would be unprecedented in US history and open the Constitution to amendments on any subject – a Pandora’s box, according to some constitutional scholars.

Lee, who supports a balanced budget amendment, counts himself among those who think “there are dangers” in calling a constitutional convention. He says he was taught by his father, former US Solicitor General Rex Lee, that a convention is a “risky” proposition, having never been tried before.

Better to leave “good enough alone,” says Lee, and work through the process that’s been used 27 times: Congress passes an amendment that is ratified by the states.

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