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.
The Iowa trip is the latest example of how their schedules, ambitions, and politics have overlapped. A couple of hours later, as they sat in coach, Paul and Cruz both prepared for the Iowa Renewal Project, a gathering of conservative Christian pastors. Cruz was slated to speak at the breakfast session on Friday, and Paul was set to address the luncheon. The soft light of iPad screens lit up the dark cabin as they read.
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.