The most attention-grabbing conservatives in the emerging 2016 Republican presidential nomination race are two freshmen U.S. senators who had never held elective office before.
Though nearly equal in their fanfare, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas are romancing Republican and independent voters in radically different ways.
The outcome of their fierce competition could influence the direction of their party.
Win or lose, both men have an opportunity to influence a new generation of conservatives in tactics, policy and coalition-building while readjusting the movement’s planks of fiscal restraint, free markets, strong security and social values.
Fashioning himself as an uncompromising truth-teller, Mr. Cruz wants a strict adherence to the federal spending restraints promised, but not practiced, by Republicans over most of the past 25 years. His admirers say they would trust him to advance the Bible as the one true word, the foundation of American politics and policy at home and abroad.
Mr. Paul advocates a more inclusive approach. He appeals to voters regardless of religion, political inclination or lifestyle and substantively pushes a foreign policy tipped away from unending intervention. He has positioned himself as a uniter capable of expanding the Republican Party beyond its core.
“We’re an increasingly diverse nation, and I think we do need to reach out to other people that don’t look like us, don’t wear the same clothes, that aren’t exactly who we are,” he told Iowa Republicans.
In a Senate floor speech last month, Mr. Paul once again laid out his principles for foreign policy, using the Islamic State crisis in the Middle East as a case study.
“Intervention created this chaos,” he said. “To those who wish unlimited intervention and boots on the ground everywhere, remember the smiling poses of politicians pontificating about so-called freedom fighters and heroes in Libya, in Syria and in Iraq — unaware that the so-called freedom fighters may well have been allied with kidnappers and are killers and jihadists.”
The Middle East and America’s long alliance with Israel creates another possible separation point between these men of ambition.
Mr. Paul has visited Israel in the company of American rabbis, evangelical ministers and Catholic priests and has embraced the Jewish state as a friend and ally.
Some evangelicals, however, say Mr. Cruz has gone well beyond Mr. Paul’s statements and see him as a fellow “dispensationalist,” even though Mr. Cruz has not publicly identified himself with that understanding of Christianity.
The dispensationalist theory of the Bible holds that the Old Testament covenants with the Jewish people are still valid and expressed in the modern state of Israel. In most interpretations, Jewish control of the Holy Land and/or Jerusalem is a precondition for the return of Christ.
Some evangelicals said Mr. Cruz used dispensationalist language at a Washington rally of visiting Middle Eastern Christians who had been persecuted in their home countries by Islamic radicals.
“Christians have no greater ally than Israel,” Mr. Cruz told them, prompting boos and an escalating exchange that led to Mr. Cruz walking off the stage.
“I believe like Cruz,” said Rob McCoy, senior pastor of Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Southern California. “Cruz’s statement that ‘Christians have no greater ally than Israel’ is dispensationalist.”
Mr. Cruz’s father, Rafael, is a pastor with the charismatic ministry Purifying Fire International and has spoken of Christians holding secular power as a divine calling. Though the younger Mr. Cruz has not spoken in such terms, the father’s standing can provide a comfort and trust level for the son in evangelical circles.
However, Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said her boss supports Israel for reasons related to national security, not the Bible.
“Our alliance with Israel,” Mr. Cruz said in a speech to Christians United for Israel, “should be explained not as a gift, not as beneficence, but rather that our alliance with Israel is driven by the overwhelming national security benefits that come to the United States of America.”
Mr. McCoy said he agrees with Mr. Paul that Israel remains an ally because it is helpful to the U.S., not because it is scripturally blessed.
Although some dismissed Mr. Cruz’s walkout as a political stunt, others said he was staking ground.
“He helped himself,” former Georgia Republican National Committee member Carolyn Meadows wrote in an email. “He stayed with what he always espouses — a good thing — even if you don’t agree with him.”
Hoover Institution resident scholar Jeremy Carl said Mr. Cruz “strengthened his brand as a ‘truth teller,’ regardless of the consequences. I’m not saying you have to agree with his ‘truth,’ just that it is his brand. He’s not afraid to be unpopular either within Congress or outside it.
“He also helped himself immeasurably with the pro-Israel voters, which can’t be underestimated, especially as some of them might be otherwise a bit frosty to Cruz’s more hard-edged positions,” said Mr. Carl. “So it’s hard for me to see this as anything other than a win, politically, for him.”
Uniter, not a divider
Other Republicans think Mr. Paul comes out ahead, reinforcing his nascent image as a great unifier. He has, after all, endorsed the re-election of fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader and a tea party movement bete noire.
“What Ted Cruz said maybe was a little bit of a stunt and very ill-advised,” said former state Sen. Jim Luther, New Hampshire Republican.
“I like Cruz, but he can be a bit of a firebrand, and he is a little more of an opportunist,” said Mr. Luther, an evangelical Christian and former state senator. “I think that at the Unity Breakfast up here, Rand came off as a unifier rather than a firebrand and opportunist. Rand was a bit more thoughtful and more composed, I thought.”
New Hampshire author and educator Ann Marie Banfield also attended the GOP Unity Breakfast that featured Mr. Paul.
“He spoke about the federal government’s overreach, which resonates with me and many other voters in New Hampshire,” said Ms. Banfield, education liaison for Cornerstone Action, which advocates traditional values and limited government.
“Sen. Cruz carries the same message, and that will also play well in New Hampshire politics,” Ms. Banfield said. “What seems to now separate the two is their views on Israel and foreign policy.
“Many people, including myself and Sen. Paul, support Israel as an ally,” said Ms. Banfield. “However, does a Cruz presidency look more like a [George W.] Bush presidency where we need to worry that we will go to war for nation-building and spreading democracy?”
Mr. Luther said he, too, believes Israel must exist for a Second Coming according to the Bible, but this does not affect his views on foreign policy. “Book of Zechariah says that Israel will get hammered but that only God will be able to save Israel from this,” Mr. Luther said.
“The earthly forces that will come against Israel will be greater than its ability and power to repel them,” the former legislator said. “The Bible predicts that this will happen and that only God will be able to save Israel from this. The Bible is very clear that God desires to bring glory to Himself by doing what no nation can do, including the U.S. and Israel.”
Whether talking foreign policy, drones, government spying or debt limits, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Paul get more ink and TV face time than their potential rivals, in part because both are at or near the top of most Republican presidential polls. Both have made no secret that they have begun laying the groundwork in early contest states.
When it comes to style, Mr. Cruz captivates economic and national defense conservatives as he strides back and fourth across the stage — any stage — speaking without notes, without a teleprompter and, apparently, without speechwriters.
Mr. Cruz confirmed his strength among religious and social conservatives this month when Family Research Council President Tony Perkins announced him as the winner of the Values Voters Summit straw poll for the second year in a row.
Mr. Cruz took 25 percent of the votes. Mr. Paul gave what most press reports described as a thoughtful, measured speech and placed sixth with 7 percent of the vote.
It’s not just the Christian right — long an anchor of the Republican electorate — that greets Mr. Cruz with enthusiasm.
“Cruz had been the tea party’s favorite for a while. You can see it at tea party rallies,” said Larry Nordvig, former executive director of the Richmond Tea Party in Virginia. “People fall all over themselves to shake his hand. They yell, ‘Run, Ted, run!’ a lot.
“That being said, I think Rand has the potential to draw a wider net of voters. He, too, is very popular with the tea party, but also draws libertarians and might be less of a lightning rod.”
Whether the tea party movement will be as important in the Republican presidential nomination two years from now as it was in helping the party win the House in 2010 is anybody’s guess, but there is little doubt which candidate the movement likes more.
“Ted Cruz and Rand Paul would most likely be the top candidates for the 2016 GOP nomination with tea party supporters,” said Cleveland Tea Party founder Ralph King.
Wavering vs. electability
For the moment, it’s Mr. Paul who faces the greater dilemma.
“In trying to position himself as more electable, Paul has wavered on some of his stances,” said Mr. King. “He has become more of a politician, with his softening or careful phrasing or rephrasing his positions, where Ted Cruz has remained steadfast in his positions and views.”
Yet Mr. King talks forgivingly of Mr. Paul’s strategy.
“At the end of the day, whether we like it or not, to get elected at this level a candidate has to play the game,” Mr. King said. “This is a fine line that Paul must walk, and the question now becomes, how far will Paul go with trying to become more electable before he is no longer the Rand Paul people first elected to office?”
For Mr. King, finding the precise calibration is what matters.
“Can Rand Paul, or any candidate for that matter, move or position himself to be more electable without alienating his base and who he is as a person?” Mr. King wondered aloud in a phone interview.
Mr. Cruz has his own dilemma: Does his campaign style get him beyond a measure of support that is deeper but narrower than other candidates?
“He seems to have the knack for lighting a fuse wherever he goes,” said former Idaho GOP finance Chairman Larry Eastland. “It may gain him a fervent following. But will it get him to the front of the pack?”