For trio of rising Republican stars in Senate, a race to define themselves

Three Tea Party senators are angling for the White House — and could be one another's greatest obstacles to winning the GOP nomination.

Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFive years after the Pulse nightclub massacre the fight for LGBTQ+ rights continues Rubio calls on Biden to 'forcefully' confront Iran over movement of war ships Bipartisan lawmakers want Biden to take tougher action on Nicaragua MORE (R-Fla.), Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden tries to erase Trump's 'America First' on world stage Cotton, Pentagon chief tangle over diversity training in military GOP senators press Justice Department to compare protest arrests to Capitol riot MORE (R-Texas) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulFauci to Chelsea Clinton: The 'phenomenal amount of hostility' I face is 'astounding' GOP's attacks on Fauci at center of pandemic message Fox host claims Fauci lied to Congress, calls for prosecution MORE (R-Ky.), three favorites of the conservative movement, have been quietly jostling for position over policy and stature within the party. Cruz has emerged as one of the foremost critics of the bipartisan immigration reform Rubio is pushing while Paul and Rubio have amassed strikingly similar voting records.

“Clearly there are three conservative Republican senators that think they have a shot at the White House and are going to try to stake out their territory the best they can,” said GOP strategist and former Senate leadership senior staffer Ron Bonjean. “The pressure is on for them to distinguish themselves from each other. They have their work cut out for them.”

The senators share common philosophies and much of the same base — and as long as one has the spotlight on an issue, the others won’t. Whoever claims a stake over individual issues — and the issues upon which they disagree — will likely set the stage for the 2016 campaign.

“It's interesting and a little surprising that you have three guys who are national figures in the Senate,” said Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist. “You could end up with all three jumping on the same chessboard on something where that's the obvious place for a candidate like them to be. Or they step on slightly different squares at different times.”

Rubio remains the best known of the three, and has gone all-in on immigration, spending months working on the legislation and how to best sell it to reluctant conservatives. His most recent effort came in a Friday op-ed for The Wall Street Journal and he’s appeared on a variety of conservative radio talk shows arguing that the current broken immigration system amounts to “amnesty,” not the proposed legislation. He continues to lead in early national polls the potential Republican field.

Rubio's staff has worked to tamp down 2016 talk, while Cruz fired back against reports this week that he was looking at a run, calling it "wild speculation."

Cruz has built up his national brand with a vocal opposition to any new gun control laws. His Friday afternoon speech to the National Rifle Association’s annual convention drew a raucous ovation. His offer to debate Vice President Biden over gun legislation in that speech drew whoops from the audience.

On Friday night, Cruz headed to South Carolina for an event honoring former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who helped all three senators win their contested primaries — a speaking slot Paul’s staff had sought for him. “I would not be in the U.S. Senate were it not for Jim DeMint,” he said, adding that Paul and Rubio were in the Senate as well because of DeMint’s support.

In January, Cruz’s challenge of then-Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump asks Biden to give Putin his 'warmest regards' Huma Abedin announces book deal Mystery surrounds Justice's pledge on journalist records MORE during a hearing on the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi drew raves from conservatives.

He’s also been critical of the bipartisan legislation Rubio is deeply involved with, saying he won’t support any bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Cruz’s rhetoric on immigration hasn’t been nearly as sharp, but with some in the GOP base furious at Rubio for his embrace of his bill, Cruz could give them another viable option.

Later this month, Cruz has a planned fundraiser in donor-rich New York City.

Paul is capitalizing on the attention his filibuster of President Obama’s drone policy and subsequent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) generated with planned trips to the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He’s now moving his Senate chief of staff, Paul Stafford, over to the campaign side in the coming days — a sign of how focused he is on 2016.

The three have often stuck together on votes, with Cruz and Paul often working together.

Cruz was one of the first to join Paul in his drone filibuster. (Rubio came out for it a few hours later.) Paul and Cruz also worked closely on their planned filibuster of the a vote to enhance background checks on gun purchases. But there are only so many issues out there — and the senators will have to be conscious of where the others are in order to lay claim on issues and avoid being the voice of “me too,” as Paul was when he came out in favor of Rubio’s immigration proposals.

“These guys will all be going to be fighting for oxygen at the national level the next year and a half —and they will be stepping on toes. They'll be angling for speaking invitations, wanting to lead on some of the same issues,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.

Rubio and Paul have been engaged in a careful dance. While they’ve mostly stuck together on votes, they drew distinctions with one another at CPAC. Rubio stressed his social conservatism and support for a more robust international presence, areas in which Paul and traditional conservatives disagree. And just minutes after Rubio argued the GOP didn’t need new ideas, Paul said the “GOP of old has gone stale” and that the new Republican Party needed to “embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere.”

But Cruz’s emergence scrambles that duality, forcing Paul and Rubio to deal with him as well, rather than just choose to help each other when it’s convenient and disagree when it excites their base. “It was like NASCAR — Rand and Rubio were trying to draft behind each other and stay ahead of the pack, and Cruz used that time to raise his name ID with the base. The base just wants that pure candidate and you're going to have to convince them you're the guy,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “Three is a crowd in the Senate, particularly for what Rubio and Rand are trying to do.”