Tensions between Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other potential 2016 presidential contenders over the government shutdown were visible just beneath the surface at Friday's Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C.
Cruz fired up the conservative crowd with a demand that they double down in their fight against ObamaCare, ripping establishment Republicans as well as Democrats for opposing him in his quest.
The shutdown went unmentioned by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), both early champions of the defunding battle.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who is working toward a compromise with the White House on the shutdown and debt ceiling that does not erode ObamaCare, made a short argument for his alternate plan in Friday afternoon video message to the group.
The GOP leaders' avoidance of the high-profile battle at the conference was an important illustration of the delicate position in which they find themselves.
The conservative base loves Cruz for his defunding push and "with us or against us" mentality, but polls show the effort is hurting the Republican brand.
Paul's and Rubio's dodges, and Ryan's implicit rebuke, demonstrate that they are seeking to avoid being tainted by the fight's fallout while avoiding any confrontation with the party’s base.
Cruz used his speech to frame the debate over ObamaCare and the government shutdown in stark terms, painting it as a key battle in the larger war for individual freedom.
"We can't keep going down the road much longer. We're nearing the edge of a cliff, and our window to turn things around I don't think is long — I don't think it's 10 years," he said.
Cruz warned "that train wreck, that disaster, that nightmare that is ObamaCare" must be stopped — and stopped now.
"If there is one overall strategy in Washington it is risk aversion," Cruz said, mocking the Republicans who declined to join his fight. "We went over their heads — to the American people."
He later said the GOP-controlled House must continue “standing strong” in insisting major cutbacks to ObamaCare be a part of any deal to reopen the government.
That stance is at odds with public opinion, according to a bevy of polls that have also found the Republican brand has been badly damaged by the ongoing fight.
“ObamaCare remains a political albatross for Democrats, but a government shutdown has proven to be more toxic to voters,” Luke Frans, the head of the GOP polling firm Resurgent Republic, wrote on the group’s website Friday.
“A government shutdown divides Republicans and flips the anti-ObamaCare coalition, which is why the shutdown stopped revolving around the health care law several days ago.”
Paul and Rubio, both of whom joined Cruz’s 21-hour filibuster, seem cognizant of this. Rubio made a broader speech about the economy and the middle class, the role of government and faith; Paul spent most of his time talking about Muslim oppression of Christians abroad. Neither mentioned the shutdown.
The crowd of conservative activists gave warm responses to all three, but their loudest cheers were reserved for the combative Cruz, who won several standing ovations.
Ryan, who is working with GOP leaders and President Obama toward a possible agreement on the shutdown, was careful to criticize ObamaCare without making any promises about defunding it in this fight.
“Now, this president, he won’t agree to everything we need to do," Ryan said in the video. "A budget agreement — with this president and this Senate — it won’t solve all of our problems. But I hope it’s a start. I hope we can get a down payment on our debt.”
The potential 2016 presidential candidate said conservatives can “never give up on repealing and replacing ObamaCare” in the speech, not mentioning that his current push to raise the debt ceiling focuses on spending rather than conservative demands to defund Obama’s signature law.
Ryan’s taped comments drew polite applause from the audience.
Rubio, Ryan and Paul have all sought in different ways to balance appeals to the conservative wing of the party with moves to build support with more centrist voters.
Rubio’s work on immigration, Ryan’s part in the budget discussions and Paul’s protests about drone strikes all helped burnish their brands with independents or helped win them support within the Republican establishment.
Cruz has taken a very different approach, revving up the base and taking pride in his capacity to antagonize the establishment in both parties.
“There's a hunger among the conservative movement for conservative outreach, and [Cruz] represents that possibility,” former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (R), who was in attendance, said.
Blackwell, who sits on the board of the Family Research Council, the socially conservative group that puts on the conference, as well as the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, argued all three senators all have different appeals to the base.
“They're not clones of each other. I think what most people realize is that each of them will have their issue where they will shine, or shine more than others,” he said.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins agreed — and said Ryan, as a member of House leadership, has a “different role” than the others at this point.
“He has a different approach. I have an appreciation for his role. He's working with the budget, he's in leadership, he's got to do certain things. It's sometimes easier when you're not in a leadership position — in terms of putting the budget together, he's trying to bring these factions together,” he said.
“I may not agree with him on everything but I trust him because I believe he's coming at it from a principled position. And he's a conservative. He has a different role to play right now."