Sen. Ted Cruz may be under fire from colleagues at the Capitol, but he was a hero to the thousands at the annual Values Voter Summit who praised him for refusing to give up his push to defund Obamacare and helping ignite the government shutdown.
While other potential 2016 White House candidates also spoke at the summit, Mr. Cruz emerged from the weekend at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington as the clear favorite of the religious conservatives, with the Texas Republican capping off the weekend by easily winning a presidential straw poll that takes the temperature of a powerful slice of the conservative movement.
The poll underscored the lingering tension between GOP leaders, who are growing anxious about the government shutdown, and grass-roots conservative activists, who are fired up by Mr. Cruz's confident resilience and no-holds-barred approach to torpedoing Obamacare.
"He has some talents and facilities from God for just delivering a direct message, but I think the other thing is that he is not afraid," said Annie Pati, who is in her 60s and lives in Houston. "I think its tremendously inspirational to see someone who doesn't fear anyone — even though they know there is going to be a big 'X' on their back, and he still goes on, fearless."
Mr. Cruz delivered to the summit the same red meat he has dished out during his monthslong anti-Obamacare campaign, warning that the nation doesn't have that much time to turn itself around before "we go off the cliff to oblivion."
"I'm going to suggest a model for how we turn this country around in the next couple of years," Mr. Cruz said. "And it is the model that we have been following together for the last couple of months, to stop that train wreck, that disaster, that nightmare that is Obamacare."
By contrast, two other potential 2016 hopefuls took different approaches with the crowd, which one attendee said would be "happy to shut government forever."
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who ran afoul of some conservatives with his successful push to pass an immigration legalization bill through the Senate, tried to reassure the summit he's on their side by emphasizing the role that religion plays in his daily life. And Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky struck a chord by calling attention to the "worldwide war on Christians" that is being waged by radical Islamists across the globe.
"As far as I can tell from a group like this, Ted Cruz has no minuses," said a 69-year-old woman from Virginia who asked that her name not be printed because, she said, she feared the Obama administration would retaliate against her. "Marco Rubio still has to make up for the immigration bill, and I don't think it was so much immigration as being suckered by the liberals and maybe he is too young and too innocent. You don't get the impression that Ted Cruz is young and innocent. He has his pulse on it. I think the hesitation with Rand Paul is he is libertarian."
The three-day summit, hosted by the Family Research Council, drew religious conservatives from across the nation and featured appearances by Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas, Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Rep. Allen B. West delivered addresses that electrified the crowd, as did Sen. Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican who touted pro-life policies and said the GOP must fight for school choice on behalf of students stuck in failing schools.
But Mr. Cruz drew the most interest, from supporters and opponents alike.
His speech Friday was interrupted by a half-dozen protesters who demanded he back a bill granting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, such as the one Mr. Rubio advocates.
The Texan deflected the criticism and turned it into an attack on President Obama.
"It seems that President Obama's paid political operatives are out in force today," Mr. Cruz said. "And you know why? And you know why? Because the men and women in this room scare the living daylights out of them."
Katrina Ruma, 44, called Mr. Cruz "Reaganesque."
"He is speaking for the American population, as whole — more so than what the mainstream media is saying," Ms. Ruma said. "And he doesn't use a teleprompter. Everything is from his heart."
Mr. Cruz has been most vocal opponent of Obamacare on Capitol Hill, where he and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah have urged their colleagues to reject any spending bills that include funding for the health care law.
Their effort, which has gathered steam since its beginning in a series of town hall meetings over the summer, has angered some GOP lawmakers, who say the strategy is doomed to fail because Democrats control the Senate and Mr. Obama would never allow his signature domestic achievement to be gutted.
Polls also show that Republicans are bearing the brunt of the blame for the budget standoffs, and that Mr. Cruz's unfavorable ratings have climbed.
But Mr. Cruz showed he remains a rock star among the conservatives gathered here, capturing 42 percent of the vote in the presidential straw poll, easily outpacing his closest competition, Dr. Ben Carson and Mr. Santorum, who each received 13 percent.
Former Arkansas Gov Mike Huckabee won the 2012 straw poll here, former Rep. Ron Paul won the 2011 contest and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence won it as a member of Congress in 2010.
The Rev. Doug Hoffman, a pastor from Texas, said he watched Mr. Cruz climb the political ladder in the Lone Star State and said is happy to see that he has not taken his foot off the gas since arriving in Washington.
"I thought he was going to slow down coming here and now I see that he is even busier. He is putting it on the line, I think. Some would say to become a presidential candidate, but I don't think so; I think it is just really where his heart is."
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