Cruz zeroes in on his base

Ted Cruz is disregarding the general election by targeting the conservative right wing for the primary.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the first Republican hopeful to formally enter the race for his party’s 2016 nomination, is not one for subtlety. In his choice of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., a fundamentalist Christian hotbed, he preached his true-faith conservative message to the choir.

Invoking both God and the American dream to students at the house that big-time evangelist Jerry Falwell built, Mr. Cruz told them, “God’s blessing has been on America from the beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet.”

As the students cheered his name at the compulsory attendance event, Mr. Cruz included them in his declaration of candidacy. “I believe in you,” he assured them. “I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to reignite the promise of America, and that is why today I am announcing that I’m running for president of the United States.”

The brash 44-year-old Texan thus kicked off his campaign without the usual tease of creating an “exploratory committee” for advance fundraising, as his GOP competitors have done. Perhaps he was obliging the others to jump in too, earlier than they may have wanted or planned.

Mr. Cruz clearly is intent on nailing down the strong religious conservative base that is a core of the tea party movement within the GOP. That base is also certain to be the target of other far-right candidates, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and even Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the libertarian hopeful.

This phenomenon appears to be setting up at least a two-track path of the nomination between these Christian conservatives and remaining establishment Republican aspirants, headed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, another Floridian, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The entire pack, from tea partyers to establishment regulars, all contend, however, that they are loyal and committed conservatives, including Mr. Bush, whose family includes the last two Republican presidents. Mr. Bush is generally considered the most moderate and non-ideological of the group.

From the time he first expressed interest in seeking the GOP nomination, Mr. Bush has stated his intention to buck the tide of ultraconservatism that exists in a substantial strain of the Republican Party, to attract a broader base in the general election if he wins the nomination.

As he put it then in an observation that could be seen not only as a declaration of independence from his family but also from the party’s far-right core, Mr. Bush said he intended to be “my own man.” In a subsequent Wall Street Journal interview, he said a candidate must be willing to lose the primary elections in order to win the general, “without violating your principles, to actually show in an adult-like way that we (Republicans) can govern, lead.”

Mr. Cruz obviously is having none of that. His game plan is to run strong and hard to capture the religious and tea party conservative right wing of the party, hoping to clear out the large field of challengers for that base. He will worry later about the general election, should he get that far.

In a sense, however, he will be running not only against the pack on the right wing but also against his own extremist rhetoric that relies on personal and inflammatory bombast. He continues to talk of repealing Obamacare and barring same-sex marriage, which may help him in GOP primary debates but might bury him in the general election.

Mr. Cruz conjures up a rerun of the 1964 presidential run of Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who rode ultraconservative bombast to the Republican nomination, declaring that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Whether the GOP is willing to revisit that experience seems unlikely. Four years after Goldwater’s defeat in the general election, the party turned to the establishment candidate Richard Nixon, and conservatism had to await a softer version in 1980 in the person of Ronald Reagan to gain the Oval Office. But Mr. Cruz, like Goldwater, obviously is not built to trim his sails.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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