But Cruz did more than tout his faith and values; he made his Iowa debut. He went into great detail about how he’s fighting as an outsider in the Senate to push for conservative policy, and he spent a heavy portion of his speech reflecting on his days as solicitor general of Texas, where he worked on cases to defend religion in the public square. Near the end, he talked with emotion about his father’s flight from Cuba.
After Cruz stepped off the dais, it was as if he had suddenly been transformed from a politician they’d seen only on Fox News to a confidant of Iowa’s preaching elite. Pastors laid their hands on his shoulders as a prayerful gesture. Cruz aides Johnson and Drogin, standing aside, looked startled by the rapturous reception; they’ve seen their boss rock conservative audiences before, but they expected Iowans to be cagey.
“It was impressive,” says Bob Vander Plaats, the president of The Family Leader, an Iowa-based conservative group. “I believe if he keeps leading the way he’s leading, he’d quickly narrow the field, just by his presence, should he decide to run.” Steve Deace, a top Iowa radio talker, agrees: “I’m usually not that easily swayed, but Cruz was a force of nature,” he says.
At noon, Cruz headed over to the Iowa GOP’s headquarters near the state capitol for a picnic with Republican donors. It was supposed to be a tiny event for a visiting senator with limited local ties, but it became a media spectacle, as several TV crews showed up and a crowd of Democrats protested on the building’s steps, trying to block the entrance.
Cruz shrugged off the distractions and made news: He urged congressional Republicans to threaten to shut down the government unless Obamacare is fully defunded. In an impomptu press conference, not far from where he spoke, he criticized President Obama’s Friday comments about Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws. “It is not surprising that the president uses every opportunity he can to try to go after our Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” he said.
As Cruz maneuvered among camera cables and hovering bloggers under a scorching-hot sun, Paul was across town, back in that same Marriott conference room, giving his own talk to the pastors. But unlike Cruz, who was making a first impression, Paul took the stage as more of an old friend stopping by. His father, Ron Paul, the retired Texas congressman, finished third in last year’s Iowa caucuses, and the senator was in Cedar Rapids in May for a sold-out fundraiser hosted by two former Ron Paul volunteers who now chair the state party.
“There are three or four ministers out here who I recently went to Israel with,” Paul told me, before heading upstairs. “There’s a lot of reacquainting going on.”
Whereas Cruz had a fire-and-brimstone edge, Paul had a low-key drawl and talked calmly about the need for peace and a spiritual and civic revival. Unlike Cruz, he spoke from a prepared text and stayed steady at the podium. He knocked both parties for “looting the treasury” and “destroying the currency,” and cited faith as a guide to fixing these crises. “As Billy Graham might say, America needs to revive the hope that springs eternal from the transcendent teachings of a humble carpenter who died on a cross,” he said. He then quoted Mother Teresa, Thomas Paine, and Pope Benedict XVI.
Paul’s most rousing moment came when he brought up foreign policy. The pastors were on their feet when he said the U.S. should not give “one penny more” to any country that burns the American flag in the streets. “Congress responds by sending more of your money to these haters of Christianity?” he asked, incredulously. “It is time to put a stop to this madness!”
Following his 25-minute speech, Paul and his wife, Kelley, experienced a similar “laying on of the hands” by the pastors. Heads were bowed, a prayer was said, and attendees closed around him. “My faith is part of who I am,” Paul says, when I ask him whether it will feature prominently in his future campaigns. “I don’t tend to wear it on my sleeve, but it influences who I am, and it influences my worldview.”
Leaving the room, pastors said they liked Paul, and they especially enjoy his rabble-rousing in the Senate, such as his famous 13-hour filibuster on drone policy. They appreciate that he’s done his spadework in Iowa, spending time with them at their events and via phone calls when he’s on Capitol Hill. Conservative operative David Lane, the organizer of the Iowa Renewal Project, is a close friend of the Paul family’s.
Cruz, though, had more of the pastors swooning. Paul is an Iowa regular, but the Texan won Round One, at least, of this buzz battle.
Of course, Paul shouldn’t be counted out, even as Cruz ascends and draws headlines. He may not have Cruz’s fiery style, but his base in Iowa and elsewhere is fervent and engaged. His national political operation, led by conservative organizer Doug Stafford, is humming behind the scenes, making hires and planning a spate of trips.
Paul is also broadening his appeal beyond his father’s coalition. Joining him after his luncheon address was Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. He, too, was on that late flight to Iowa from Ronald Reagan National Airport. Priebus joined Paul at the aforementioned dinner with black and Latino religious leaders — a show of Paul’s solidarity with the national GOP, as well as a sign of his commitment to reach out to the minority community.
Meanwhile, Cruz tells me he’ll keep traveling to early-primary states. “I’ve been in the Senate for seven months, but it’s important to make a national argument for free-market principles,” he says. “I’m interested in continuing to promote our founding principles. I think it’s critically important to urge every American who’s fed up with this administration to demand a change.”
Regarding Paul, Cruz simply calls him an ally. He leaves any 2016 tension untouched in our chat. “We’re side by side on virtually everything in the Senate, and I expect that to continue,” he says. “No offense, but I try not to pay attention to what the media’s saying; I try to focus on the substance.”
Paul chuckles when I mention a potential rift. He says he and Cruz work together daily in the Senate, and that it’s far too soon to speculate. “I think Iowa people are similar to New Hampshire people,” he says. “They say they’ve got to meet you five more times before they make a final decision.”
Paul adds, playfully, that the only clash he may have with Cruz is during a blackjack game, perhaps after sushi, on their way to Iowa, again.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.