The GOP's Daddy issues

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There are not many people who once fought on the same side as Fidel Castro and are now heroes to American social conservatives.

But that is exactly the trajectory taken by Rafael Cruz, father of 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzThis week: Shutdown deadline looms over Congress Five things to watch for at Trump-Clinton debate Week ahead: Funding fight dominates Congress MORE (R-Texas).

The elder Cruz now regrets his fight on the side of the pro-Castro rebels in his native Cuba, ascribing it to dislike of Castro’s arch-enemy, U.S.-backed President Fulgencio Batista, rather than any sympathy for Communism. 

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Rafael has travelled a complicated path in the United States, encompassing two divorces, business reversals and a second career as a preacher.

But it is his red-hot rhetoric that appalls liberal groups and enthuses social conservatives. 

That, in turn, makes his son one of three GOP hopefuls this year whose relationships with their fathers bring complicated political dynamics. 

While the fathers of Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulSaudi skeptics gain strength in Congress Senators challenge status quo on Saudi arms sales Five tips from Trump's fallen rivals on how to debate him MORE (R-Ky.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush both held elective office and have been in the political spotlight for years, the elder Cruz will be under national scrutiny for the first time with his son’s run for president. 

Rafael excites grassroots activists, but he has provided plenty of fodder for Cruz opponents to use. 

Rafael Cruz has told crowds that “political correctness is a cancer and it’s killing us," that children are “being brainwashed in the public schools with…immorality,” and, earlier this month, that, “if we have someone like Hillary Clinton elected in 2016, you might as well kiss this country goodbye.”

A large part of the conservative base would agree with those statements, controversial though they are. But there is also the question of whether Rafael can go too far for any reasonable tastes.

On one occasion, speaking about President Obama, he told a crowd “I’d like to send him back to Kenya.” He has said that the president is “an outright Marxist.” Last month, he claimed that legislation aimed at preventing anti-LGBT discrimination would protect a hypothetical boys’ high school football team that “decides that they want to shower with the girls.”

Back in 2013, the host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Chris Matthews, wondered on air: “Should we ignore the words of Cruz Sr. that the president of this country is a Marxist?…Is the father the end of this thinking…or is the surrogate closer to the senator, the father closer to the son, than either will let us know?”

“Look, you have to look at it from Ted’s perspective,” said GOP consultant Ford O’Connell. “Rafael is someone who can really fire up the social conservatives. But [Ted Cruz’s aides] have got to say to him, ‘The campaign’s started, so when you go out, you have to keep the car between the white lines.’ ”

Whether the elder Cruz is willing or able to do that is open to question. No one doubts his pride in his son or his ambitions on his behalf — a glowing 2013 National Review story said that Rafael cried when Ted took his oath of office as a senator. 

But Rafael often speaks in a register that is not commonly used even by other pursuers of the evangelical vote, such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R).

“If the righteous are not voting, if the righteous are not even running for office, what is left?” he asked a crowd in Texas on Thursday evening, according to a report in the Midland Reporter-Telegram. “The wicked electing the wicked.”

Steve Deace, a prominent conservative talk radio host in Iowa, said he knows the elder Cruz well, describing him as “a great guy, a dynamic speaker and someone who really believes in his son but not in an over-the-top-Dad way.”

Deace added, “I think Rafael says things to audiences that need to be said but they are also probably more permitted from someone in the ministry — things about the general spiritual condition of the culture.”

Rand Paul faces a different challenge than Ted Cruz.

Former Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas) positions on foreign policy, in particular, are anathema to large swathes of the GOP heartland, combining near-total isolationism and a deep skepticism of foreign aid, including to U.S. allies such as Israel.

Rand Paul once seemed more sympathetic to those ideas than he does now. The Kentucky senator’s much-discussed clash with Savannah Guthrie of NBC’s “Today” show earlier this month was sparked by Guthrie asking him about the shift in his thinking.

But Paul has a difficult needle to thread, since he would like to harness the libertarian grassroots enthusiasm that propelled his father’s presidential runs while also expanding his appeal.

That effort doesn’t always work, as evidenced by the misgivings some libertarian Republicans are expressing.

Aaron Day, the chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, was an emphatic supporter of Ron Paul. He doesn’t feel the same about the younger member of the family.

“I am being critical — that is the most succinct way to put it,” he told The Hill. “All of Ron’s positive attributes don’t necessarily transfer. [Rand] is his own person. I think it’s important, and I’m urging everyone, to do due diligence.”

Jeb Bush is in a unique position, with both his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and brother, former President George W. Bush, casting different shadows over his likely campaign. Ultimately, his brother’s political legacy will likely be a bigger issue for him than that of his father. 

Some believe his father still has plenty to offer to his campaign, especially when it comes to marshaling financial support. But ardent conservatives, who still bitterly recall the first President Bush’s breaking of his “no new taxes” pledge, don’t see it the same way.

“I just think, in general, a majority of Republicans — with the exception of those who want jobs with the Bushes — believe that chapter needs to end,” said Deace.

Bush aides note that the former Florida governor has expressed love and respect for his father — but also a desire to be seen as separate from him, and from his brother.

“I am my own man,” he declared in February.

He may not be the only candidate who will have to proclaim his independence as the campaign heats up.