By Alexander Bolton - 10/23/13 10:00 AM EDT
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are seeking to stay relevant in the debate over ObamaCare, but they might as well be shouting in a hurricane.
A hurricane named Ted.
GOP strategists say Cruz, a freshman Republican from Texas, has seized the role of Tea Party standard-bearer, giving him an edge with conservative activists.
The grassroots army Cruz built over the last few months could help him in Iowa and other primary battlegrounds if he decides to run for president in 2016.
“If the caucuses were held today, he would lap the field,” said Steve Deace, a nationally syndicated radio host based in Iowa. “I think it would be a bigger win than [former Arkansas Gov. Mike] Huckabee had in 2008. It would be more than 9 points.”
Republican critics of Cruz privately say the outspoken senator could never win a general election, especially against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a top mention for the Democratic ticket.
A recent Associated Press-GfK survey found that about half of the respondents were familiar with Cruz; 16 percent viewed him favorably, 32 percent unfavorably.
Among Tea Party Republicans, Cruz’s numbers are remarkable — 74 percent favorable and 8 percent unfavorable, according to a Pew poll.
Cruz’s peak in popularity with the GOP base coincides with a trip he has planned to Iowa this weekend.
He will be the keynote speaker at the annual Reagan Dinner in downtown Des Moines on Friday and then go pheasant hunting with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) on Saturday.
Rubio on Tuesday unveiled a proposal to delay ObamaCare’s individual mandate until the administration solves the digital infrastructure problems plaguing the rollout of the new healthcare law.
His plan is a twist on a House GOP proposal to delay the individual mandate for one year in exchange for funding the federal government.
“It’s unfair to punish people for not purchasing a product that they can’t purchase right now because the technology that’s in place, the website they’re supposed to buy it on — by the president’s own admission — is not working,” Rubio said in a CBS interview Tuesday.
Paul is pushing another wrinkle on the House bill delaying the individual mandate, which included language barring congressional lawmakers and staff from receiving federal subsidies through the insurance exchanges.
The Kentucky senator on Monday touted a constitutional amendment stating that Congress “shall make no law applicable to a citizen of the United States that is not equally applicable to Congress.”
“There’s no question that in the last three or four weeks of shutdown debate that Sens. Rubio and Paul were far overshadowed by Ted Cruz,” said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide. “If Sens. Rubio and Paul have aspirations for 2016, they need to play catch-up.”
Rubio’s defenders say the Florida conservative is closely allied with Cruz, supporting him on the floor during his 21-hour speech protesting ObamaCare and voting against the bipartisan deal to open the government and raise the debt ceiling.
One Senate aide familiar with the behind-the-scenes activity said Rubio “was much more involved than Paul” but “obviously not at the level of Cruz and [Sen. Mike] Lee [R-Utah].”
Paul was in a tough position because he has forged a political alliance with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who has since panned Cruz’s strategy as a failure for the GOP.
Now Paul has to worry about the repercussions in battleground states that could determine the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2016.An aide to Paul denied any political motivations behind his constitutional amendment.
“The intent of the amendment is as succinct and concise as its text: hold government officials to the same standards as the American people,” said the staffer.
Deace, who has many contacts among conservative operatives in Iowa, which will host the first contest of the 2016 primary, says Paul has lost supporters to Cruz.
“I know lots of liberty people who have switched to Cruz,” he said. “The story right now isn’t the kinds of inroads Paul can make with evangelicals. It’s how many libertarians he’ll lose to Ted Cruz.”
Paul’s reluctance to square off directly against McConnell threatens to become a liability among some conservative activists.
“They’re looking at him covering for Mitch McConnell, and they’re like, ‘I thought we were going to fight a revolution here. I thought we were here to take the party over,’ ” Deace said.
While Paul has endorsed McConnell for reelection, Cruz has not.
Cruz, meanwhile, is a big hit with conservative media personalities. Radio talk show host Mark Levin repeatedly lauded Cruz during the shutdown, and Fox News’s Sean Hannity this week said, “I want more Ted Cruzes elected.”
Earlier this month, Cruz won an overwhelming victory in the presidential straw poll at the 2013 Values Voter Summit, garnering 42 percent support. Paul finished in fourth place with 6 percent of the vote, and Rubio finished fifth with 5 percent.
GOP strategists say Paul’s push for a constitutional amendment to ensure equal treatment of ordinary Americans and Washington’s elites resonates with conservative activists who have grown resentful of what they see as the nation’s ruling class.
Chip Saltsman, a Republican strategist who managed Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, praised Rubio’s proposal as one that could win support among independents.
“I think it’s smart politics. With the Rubio bill, you have a chance for the White House to support it,” Saltsman quipped, noting that more Democrats could support a delay in the individual mandate if glitches with ObamaCare’s website are not fixed soon.
He also praised Paul’s proposed amendment.
“It’s always a winning issue among conservative folks when you put Congress in the same bracket as regular folks,” he said.
Saltsman said that while Rubio’s and Paul’s political advisers might feel pressure to play catch-up with Cruz, they shouldn’t get too aggressive.
“Do I think some of the people in their political shops are thinking that way? Yes. Do they need to be doing that for the 2016 prism? No,” he said. “It’s a mistake to get too far out in front far too early.
Cruz’s strategy to halt the implementation of ObamaCare is not winning rave reviews in all primary states, however.
“He’s certainly not done himself any favors,” said Bob McAlister, a GOP strategist who worked in South Carolina on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and Sen. John
McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 campaign. “Not having a strategy except to give in and have your political butt handed to you by an unpopular president doesn’t seem to be a winning strategy.”
McAlister praised Rubio for offering a plan to link the individual mandate to the functionality of the Affordable Care Act’s infrastructure.
“It does seem wise for Republicans to get behind a message that not only the die-hard Republican voters but the independent voters can understand,” he said.
“We need to treat individuals as major corporations on this issue,” he said, making reference to the administration’s delay in the employer mandate.