Rand Paul and Ted Cruz’s differing tone in response to the Ferguson riots could provide clues for the divergent trails they're forging to woo libertarian voters in 2016.
Both the Kentucky and Texas Senate Republicans urged that civil liberties be protected in statements following unrest in Ferguson, Mo.. After an officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18 year old African American teen, last weekend, riots have erupted and police have been criticized for using overly-aggressive force against protesters and reporters calling for answers.
"With Ferguson, Rand Paul took a more libertarian approach -- Ted Cruz is just giving lip-service to civil liberties," said Wes Benedict, president of the Libertarian Party. "I think the press sometimes gives Sen. Cruz undue credit for leaning-libertarian, but I just don't see it."
Benedict added: "You're not really libertarian when your gut reaction is to defend militarized police and say, 'Let's study this.'"
Paul wrote in the op-ed that "given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them."
"Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention," Paul wrote in the op-ed.
Cruz, in contrast, issued a more politically-neutral statement on his Facebook page: "Police officers risk their lives every day to keep us safe, and any time a young man loses his life in a confrontation with law enforcement, it is tragic... Civil liberties must be protected, but violence is not the answer. Once the unrest is brought to an end, we should examine carefully what happened to ensure that justice is served."
Long-time Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson said Cruz's statement was a classic campaign response that's "technically correct," while Paul's was more forceful and direct.
"This is only one little window into their potential candidacies," Wilson said. "But it tells you that Cruz will give a more careful, more precise, more political response. Paul is seeking to define himself as a candidate willing to confront difficult and politically complex issues that are outside of the normal lanes of discourses within the Republican Party.”
Wilson paused before adding, "The Cruz statement is probably what would've come out of my keyboard. It's measured, it's steady -- and it's not particularly inflammatory in one direction or the other."
Observers say the risk for Paul is that he risks jumping into a situation in which not all of the details have emerged. On Friday, authorities were still releasing details into the investigation, including allegations that Brown robbed a convenience store to steal cigars. His family has since criticized authorities for attempting to smear their son's name, and later the Ferguson police chief said the officer who killed Brown did not know he was a suspect in a robbery that took place minutes earlier.
As the investigation continues, some say Paul's response risks being too strong too quickly.
Matt Wills, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, praised Cruz for "saying, let's figure this out first and let cooler heads prevail” and compared Paul's rhetoric to that of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
McCaskill said Thursday in a public statement that authorities "need to de-militarize this situation -- this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution."
"Look, I live about 4.5-miles outside of Ferguson," Wills said. "I really feel for that community... but the political response from Paul and McCaskill to what happened is a little premature."
Wills said that Paul and other politicians who bring-up race were being "unhelpful."
"This is a tragedy for all communities -- not just African-American communities," Wills said. "I think this all just too much too soon from these politicians. We're still learning new details. I can't fault the police for wanting to protect themselves and the community, and I also have a deep place in my heart for the civil liberties we have as Americans."
A senior Paul staffer defended the column.
“I don’t think there’s anything premature about the column at all," the staffer said. "He wanted a long-form way to communicate his feelings and an op-ed seemed the best route… People wanted to know what libertarian-leaning Republicans thought of this situation and it’s an appropriate time to raise these issues.”
The Paul aide "applauded" Cruz for making his views known on the issue, too, "when so many others aren't saying anything."
"But nobody weighed-in as much as Sen. Paul did," said the staffer, who asked not to be named to speak more candidly.
"He's just OK making his voice known and weighing-in on controversial issues whereas most of the other members of the Senate aren't as willing. Yeah, of course there's risk with that -- but that's the way Rand Paul is wired. He's not risk-averse for better or worse and he can't change his nature," the aide said with a laugh.
It's that type of personality that could help and hurt the Kentuckian should he jump into the White House race. Both he and Cruz would be making appeals to the same conservative constituencies.
"We've learned that ideological perfection alone isn't sufficient, but we've also learned that personality alone isn't sufficient," Wilson said. "If personality was it took to win the nomination than we would've nominated Herman Cain."
He would also be looking to win over libertarian-leaning voters, many of whom are fans of his father, former-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
Paul has also made an effort in recent months to take his message outside traditional GOP stomping grounds, speaking at African-American colleges and visiting inner-cities.
Meanwhile, a Cruz spokeswoman declined comment when asked about Cruz and Paul's differing rhetoric on Ferguson, other than to say: "I think the senator's statement speaks for itself."