Paul, who is one of Cruz’s top Senate allies, dismisses talk of a Cruz-Paul rivalry, and has assured me that they’re friends. But sources in Paul’s camp see the rise of Cruz in much the same way as Laudner does: It’s something all conservative presidential candidates have to consider as they look at their game plans. Paul’s people are confident that Paul’s national network, fundraising base, and name identification outpace those of Cruz, but they know he is going to be a fierce competitor for the same bloc, should both decide to run. They also believe that Paul’s base may be similar to Cruz’s, but it doesn’t exactly overlap, since Paul has a record and roots with libertarian Republicans, which Cruz lacks.
“These days, there are are two silos of the Republican party: the regular Republicans, if you will, and the movement-conservative coalition that’s united by anti-establishment rhetoric and populism,” explains Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who has worked for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain of Arizona. “If Cruz runs, he is going to be the strongest candidate in that movement-conservative silo. He’s charismatic and highly intelligent and says what the base wants to hear. He could maybe even win the nomination, and on the way, he’d be a huge obstacle to Santorum, Huckabee, and Paul. But he’d be a disaster in a general election — a Republican George McGovern.”
And in a primary fight, Cruz’s initial glow from his first trips to Iowa could fade quickly. “It’s kind of comical to read everything about Cruz right now, since we’re years away and it’s way too early to know whether Cruz has staying power and doesn’t wilt under the bright lights,” says Hogan Gidley, a former Santorum adviser. “He may be a flavor of the week. There’s a big difference between making moves in 2013 and being able to go the distance like Santorum did, with grit, deep into the process.”
Beyond the right of the GOP, there’s less fear of Cruz. Sources close to former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and Rubio tell me that they’re still expecting the Cruz buzz to fizzle as new issues pop onto the Republican radar in the coming year. “I haven’t figured Cruz out yet,” says former New Jersey governor Tom Kean Sr., a Christie confidant. “I think the party is going to be looking for some unity and national appeal in the next presidential election, and if they want someone who can be as abrasive as Cruz, Christie would easily compete with him on the question of who can throw a good punch. If the party wants to win, it’s going to go with someone who can unite us and not divide the party into narrow groups.”
New York congressman Peter King, who’s contemplating his own run for the White House, agrees. “Cruz is like Paul, coming out of the isolationist wing, and I don’t think he’s going to get that far with that message,” he says. “If I run, I’d be pretty vocal about telling him that I wouldn’t have joined Paul for that drone filibuster, or talked about shutting the government down to make a point on Obamacare. Eventually, he’s going to have to answer to things that are out of his comfort zone. Even among his own wing of the party, he may have problems with the likability factor, since Paul has a more friendly, approachable political style.”
Meanwhile, whatever the speculation in Washington and elsewhere, Laudner reminds me that Cruz is out there, in Des Moines and Ames, shaking hands, building relationships, and getting ready. “He’s caught us by surprise this summer, and it seems like he’s just beginning. Some Republicans may not like this development, but we’re all paying attention.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.