Des Moines, Iowa — On Thursday night, the last direct flight from Washington, D.C., to Iowa’s capital was delayed. Most of the weary travelers idled by the gate. But two passengers, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, left to get dinner. Together, they stumbled upon a sushi bar. They took seats, and for about 30 minutes, they talked over fish and rice.
In separate interviews, both senators declined to discuss the content of their conversation, but they assured me it was amicable. “We don’t arm wrestle, or anything like that,” Paul says. Cruz concurs: “We’re good friends.”
Beneath the chumminess, however, are hints of a rivalry that could shape the 2016 Republican presidential race. Even at this early stage, the freshmen are competing hard for the hearts of their party’s right flank. The contest is unofficial and unspoken, but strategists for both men worry about being outpaced.
Down on the ground, a duel of a different sort was unfolding. Advisers to the senators were networking at the summit’s evening reception at the Marriott hotel in downtown Des Moines. Cruz’s charismatic 74-year-old father, Rafael, moved about the room in a gray suit and pink tie and told stories about his son; Sergio Gor, a Paul aide, mingled with clergy.
One of Rafael Cruz’s favorite tales was about how he trained young Ted to be a champion debater and public speaker. He talked with paternal pride about how the young man memorized the Constitution. But during recitation, his father recalls, Ted would too often say “um.” Whenever that happened, his father would call out, with a little menace, “What’s that? Is that the sound that cows make?”
After landing, near midnight, Paul and Cruz met up with their teams and reviewed the next day’s itinerary. Beyond their remarks to the pastors, they would have private meetings with Republican officials and evangelical power brokers. Rafael Cruz gave his son a download of what he’d seen and heard; Paul’s staffers reminded him that after his speech, he’d huddle with a group of Latino and black ministers.
In the morning, both senators were up early, working the Marriott’s lobby as if the Iowa Republican caucuses were set for next month. Jason Johnson and John Drogin, Cruz’s advisers, ushered him from pastor to pastor. Cruz leaned in, his brow furrowed, and solemnly listened to each greeter. Paul was more gregarious, cracking jokes and thanking people for their support. One activist expressed hopes that Paul would run and then said the same to Cruz.
For the rest of Friday, the two Senate friends went their separate ways. Cruz and his inner circle ambled up the escalators at 8 a.m. A few minutes later, Cruz began his speech in a windowless room on the third floor, following a devotional and a Gospel sing-along. As church leaders ate scrambled eggs and sipped coffee, Cruz launched into a presentation that lasted nearly an hour.
Though this was Cruz’s first trip to the Hawkeye State this year, the pastors warmed to him quickly. Their cries of “Amen!” punctuated his speech, and ovations were frequent. Ten minutes in, the lecture turned into an informal call and response, as approving murmurs burbled among the tables. Cruz’s call to abolish the Internal Revenue Service was met with raucous cheers.
In his usual style, Cruz spoke extemporaneously and didn’t use the lectern. He began by quoting passages from Scripture, including Ezekiel 3:17 — “Son of man, I have made you a watchmen for the people of Israel.” He warned apocalyptically of moral decay and blasted liberals for mocking the dangers of Satan. He asked social conservatives to get down on their “hands and knees” and pray to protect the unborn and traditional marriage. “Belief, saying I believe in something, is not sitting there quietly doing the golf clap,” he said.
“It’s like watching Richard Nixon follow Oprah’s playbook,” said a longtime Iowa Republican consultant, as he leaned against a back wall.
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.