Hard-charging Cruz creates an early splash

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Some new senators make a point of keeping their heads down and their media profiles low as they get the lay of the land on Capitol Hill.

Not Ted Cruz.

The unflinching Republican junior senator from Texas and darling of the conservative tea party movement has hit the ground running, appearing on at least a half-dozen national TV news programs since he took the oath of office barely more than a week ago. He has boasted defiantly that he would have voted against the package to avert the “fiscal cliff” brokered by his party’s leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and railed against President Obama’s choice of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.

And while his shadow on Capitol Hill is only days old, his skyrocketing profile has fueled speculation that the 42-year-old former Texas solicitor general already has his eyes set on higher political sights — including a run for president in 2016.

“He’s obviously generating some buzz,” said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “He’s setting the right note and saying the right things for 2016 as of right now.”

But Mr. O’Connell added that a run for the White House might not be Mr. Cruz’s next political move, saying he first may be eyeing a high leadership post in the Senate.

His peers recognize his potential, making him the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s vice chairman for grass-roots outreach — an honor not typically bestowed on a freshly minted member. This, along with his Cuban heritage, Texas roots and erudite communication skills have made him an attractive unofficial spokesman for fiscal conservative positions.

In an opinion piece he penned for The Washington Post published on the day he was sworn into the Senate, he accused Republicans of failing to stand up to Democratic criticism during the 2012 election campaign but strongly defended his party’s free-market principles of “opportunity conservatism.”

“The way he’s talking about fiscal responsibility and economic opportunity is a message that’s resonating,” Mr. O'Connell said.

“Folks like Ted Cruz — depending on how he plays his cards — are the future of the Republican Party.”

Mr. Cruz, a champion collegiate debater at Princeton with a law degree from Harvard, is among the few Republican bright spots that emerged from the party’s disappointing showing in the November elections — particularly the GOP’s failure to capture the White House and the net loss of Senate seats in a year in which far more Democrats were on the ballot.

An early underdog in the Texas Republican Senate primary, he went on to easily defeat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the establishment candidate whose campaign was aided by a personal fortune estimated at $200 million.

With no heir apparent for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Cruz’s arrival in Washington was well-timed, said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.

“Because of our loss for the race for the White House in 2012, there is a natural void in power that’s occurred, and people are looking to see who are the new Republican voices,” Mr. Bonjean said. “So it makes a lot of sense that Sen. Cruz would be very aggressive and focused on making sure his conservative voice is more high-profile at this time.”

The senator has brushed aside the talk about a run for the White House.

“He is focused entirely on working every day to represent Texas and defend conservative principles in the Senate,” said Cruz spokesman Sean Rushton when asked about the rumors.

Not all senators who arrive in Washington with high political aspirations have taken Mr. Cruz’s fast-track approach.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton first won a Senate seat from New York in 2001, she earned the nickname “Senator Pothole” for her rigorous focus on local — not national — issues in the first years of her term.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who also is mentioned frequently as a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, was relatively low-key in his first year in the chamber in 2011, waiting almost six months to give his “maiden speech” — the last of that year’s 13 freshmen to do so.

But unlike Mr. Cruz, Mrs. Clinton, who went on to run for president in 2008 and serve as secretary of state for the past four years, enjoyed a huge built-in donor base thanks to her eight years as first lady before her 2000 Senate win. And while Mr. Rubio had been whispered as a possible presidential running mate in 2012, he never was considered a serious contender for the top of the ticket.

Still, Mr. Cruz must build up a significant legislative record if he is going to be considered a viable presidential candidate, analysts say.

“If you look at the Marco Rubio example, he has been careful not to jump too far out ahead of himself and to create a track record of success,” Mr. Bonjean said. “You just never know what the [future political] environment is going to be, so you want to start laying down a record right now.”

While Mr. Cruz joined the Senate less than three days after its historic pre-dawn vote to approve the “fiscal cliff” package, he has tried to retroactively establish a voting record, saying he would have defied his party’s leadership and rejected the measure, which passed the Senate on a 89-8 vote.

Among the Republican “no” votes were Mr. Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, another conservative who has been rumored to be considering a 2016 presidential run.

By seeking as much attention as he has, Mr. Cruz always runs a risk of a verbal stumble.

“What he’s doing on the Sunday morning talk shows in many ways is getting beyond the echo chamber and sort of testing the right notes. But it is a double-edged sword because you could wind up stepping on your own toes and generating some bad press,” Mr. O'Connell said. “But, so far, he’s demonstrated himself to be quite capable.”

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