Paul rains on Cruz’s ’16 parade

The onetime friendship between Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election Supreme Court fight pushes Senate toward brink Crenshaw looms large as Democrats look to flip Texas House seat MORE and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRon Paul hospitalized in Texas The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Rand Paul says he can't judge 'guilt or innocence' in Breonna Taylor case MORE has grown frosty as they both vie to become the leading conservative in the 2016 GOP presidential primary.

The Kentucky senator stepped on his Texas colleague’s campaign rollout this week by questioning his electability, a move that Cruz’s allies saw as a deliberate attempt to distract from his message. 

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“We have very similar voting records and very different approaches for how to grow the party,” Paul told The Hill Tuesday. “I think people are excited by anybody who tries to make the party larger by remaining consistent with our principles.”

One Cruz adviser alleged Paul is trying to muddy the waters in his own TV appearances and interviews after Cruz announced his presidential candidacy, dominating the news cycle Monday. 

“We had a fantastic day in the media yesterday, and we plan to do that today and tomorrow,” the adviser said. “These stories are intended to distract, and we’re not going to take the bait.”

GOP strategists say Cruz put pressure on Paul by launching his presidential campaign at Liberty University, the 

nation’s largest evangelical college, on Monday, stealing some thunder from his rival. Paul will launch his own campaign on April 7 with a multi-state tour beginning in Kentucky.

“While they both may be Senate Republicans, they’re not playing nice in the sandbox because it’s all about 2016,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist. “With Cruz jumping out with his campaign, it causes pressure on Rand Paul to compete.” 

In an interview on Fox News’s “The Kelly File” Monday, Paul made clear he doesn’t think Cruz has much appeal outside the party’s base.

Paul also said he was “glad” Liberty students showed up at Cruz’s speech in the front row wearing “I’m with Rand” shirts, and during Cruz’s speech that morning he was encouraging people to retweet “Stand with Rand.”

It was a long-simmering payback for a swipe Cruz took at Paul a year ago when he characterized his colleague’s foreign policy views as un-Reaganesque.

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul; he and I are good friends. I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz told ABC’s “This Week” last March. “I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world, and I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad, but I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did.”

Paul shot back with a testy op-ed on Breitbart.com, suggesting Cruz was wrapping himself in the cloak of Reagan as a matter of style rather than substance.

“Reagan was a great leader and president,” he wrote. “But too often people make him into something he wasn’t in order to serve their own political purposes.”

Brian Darling, a former Paul aide, predicted the two would continue to draw contrasts throughout the primary campaign. 

“I don’t see a rivalry as much as Paul and Cruz targeting many of the same voters. They’re both messaging to Tea Party voters,” he said. 

Paul has a natural affinity with libertarian-leaning conservatives, while Cruz — who on Monday emphasized that his father’s acceptance of Christ kept his family together — has a better shot with values voters.

That leaves Tea Party voters and grassroots conservatives as the electoral bloc up for grabs.

One GOP senator, requesting anonymity to speak about his colleagues’ political machinations, said next year’s primary is really two contests in one: a competition to become the establishment candidate and a fight to be the leading Tea Party alternative.

“They are occupying the same niche,” the lawmaker said, explaining the rising tension between the two camps.

Cruz and Paul are also battling for top political operatives as they gear up for expensive nationwide campaigns. 

Paul recently hired Rachel Kania, who served as Cruz’s state field director during his insurgent 2012 Senate campaign. He’s also snatched former Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri to serve as a senior adviser to his leadership PAC and hired away Vincent Harris, Cruz’s former top digital adviser, in November.

They have competed for speaking slots at prime events since 2013, when Paul’s chief of staff, Doug Stafford, complained to the South Carolina Republican Party chairman about a coveted dinner invitation going to Cruz instead of his boss, Politico reported.

At times, they have even borrowed each other’s tactics.

Paul leapt into the national spotlight in March 2013 by waging a 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to serve as director of the CIA. Paul held the floor to demand the Obama administration clarify whether it claimed any authority to use drones to kill citizens on U.S. soil.

In September 2013, Cruz staged his own 21-hour filibuster protest to try to stop the implementation of ObamaCare. His blockade led to a 16-day government shutdown. 

The Texan has positioned himself as a frequent critic and antagonist of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), while Paul has become a close ally and provided instrumental support during McConnell’s contested 2014 primary race.

As a result, Cruz finds himself more isolated within the GOP caucus, while Paul is viewed as more of a team player, according to one Republican senator. 

“Cruz is trying to make himself a crusading conservative pitted against the party establishment while Paul is all about pushing his libertarian vision of conservatism,” the lawmaker said.

Paul’s approach has given him the flexibility to reach voters not traditionally aligned with the GOP, such as college students and young voters, African-Americans and the tech sector.

“It isn’t just about rousing a base. It’s about exciting the base by being for the principles of liberty, but it’s then taking those principles of liberty — not diluting them — and taking them to new people and bringing them into the party. That’s the way you win general elections,” he told Fox on Monday.

Cruz on Tuesday rebutted the perception that he won’t reach across the aisle.

“I’ve never said I won’t compromise,” he said on NBC’s “Today Show.” 

“I’m perfectly happy to work with anyone, Democrat, independent, libertarian, Republican, if they’re shrinking the size and power of the federal government, if they’re turning around the debt, if they’re expanding liberty.”