That the freshman senator from Texas had a good night onstage at the latest Republican debate surprises nobody anymore — Ted Cruz is poised, articulate and smart. He's gaining ground in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, and he's positioning himself to capture supporters from Donald Trump or Ben Carson, should either falter. There's still a long way to go in this contest, but Cruz and his campaign are well-funded, well-organized and confident in his ability to outlast and overtake his rivals.
Cruz's success is rooted in the idea that there's no such thing as too conservative, both inside electoral politics and in governing. Or if need be, not governing — history has shown he is fine with shutting the federal government down if it helps him acquire leverage over the opposition, be it Democrat or Republican. And when he runs for office, nobody gets to the right of Ted Cruz. That's how he's won.
The senator likes very much where he is positioned now. In most prior elections, he told NPR, "there has been a consensus moderate candidate early on and all the money gets behind that candidate." Conservatives, on the other hand, are more plentiful, "nobody has any money, and we fight like cats and dogs."
"What's remarkable about this cycle is the entire situation is inverted," Cruz said.
He has enjoyed watching candidates in the moderate wing of the party slug it out.
"They're gonna spend millions ripping each other apart. To be honest, right now, the moderates are acting like conservatives usually do in a Republican primary," he said.
Economy, Immigration, Obamacare
On the economic front, a President Cruz would abolish the IRS, institute a 10 percent flat tax across the board and retie the value of the dollar to the gold standard. The U.S. stopped trading gold for dollars in 1933 and while the supply of gold has grown, there isn't enough gold in the world to match the $18 trillion U.S GDP. The money supply, the availability of credit and the nation's economy would likely have to contract to match the supply of bullion. Nevertheless, Cruz says returning to the gold standard deserves serious consideration.
If you look at most of the history of America, he said, "we've had a gold standard. Including through some of the greatest economic booms known to mankind." Unpredictability in the country's currency, he added, "has a profoundly negative effect."
If elected president, Cruz would order the FBI and the Department of Justice to investigate Planned Parenthood for fraud. The Texas senator doesn't believe in climate change science and would veto any legislation that would raise taxes or fees to inhibit global warming. He would like to institute term limits for U.S. Supreme Court justices. He opposes any minimum wage increase. And he would deport the millions of unauthorized immigrants in this country, all of them.
"You know, my view on immigration is simple," he said. "Legal, good. Illegal, bad. ... You know, if you start from the proposition that rule of law matters, it answers a whole lot of questions."
In foreign policy, Cruz is a hawk with limitations. He's less a "boots on the ground" man than a "bomb them from the skies" guy. He deplores the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran and vows to do whatever is necessary to keep Israel safe.
"When the next president enters the White House, the odds are significant that he or she will encounter an Iran on the verge of having nuclear weapons," Cruz said. "And it may be that the only option at the point to preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons is military force."
And of course Cruz, who was a catalyst in closing the federal government for two weeks in 2013 during the Showdown at the Obamacare Corral, remains firmly against the Affordable Care Act.
"If I am elected president, mark my words, we will repeal every single word of Obamacare," he said.
At War With The GOP Establishment
So what are the chances Cruz is the next Republican nominee for president? In the past, a rogue Republican senator at war with the leadership of his own party would have had zero chance. But as if to demonstrate that we're not in Kansas anymore, Cruz's first radio spot emphasizes that the Texas senator is hated by the GOP establishment.
In it, a young mother explains she voted for Cruz to keep America safe, stop the debt from growing and keep her religious freedoms intact.
"The media and even some in his own party like Speaker John Boehner attacked Ted Cruz, referring to him as a pain in the you-know-what," the ad goes. "Because of his bold actions fighting to keep the promises he made to me. That was the Ted Cruz I trust."
Among the Tea Party and other insurgent Republican voters that Cruz is courting, being made an object of ridicule by the leaders of your own party is something you want to advertise. In this world, moderates are squishy "Republicans In Name Only" and right-wing true believers are the only Republican politicians that can be trusted to stand up and fight.
"There are a handful of consultants who relentlessly push what I call the Washington fallacy," Cruz said. "Which is that the way Republicans win a general election is to run in the middle. To run as Democrat light. Every time we do that, we lose."
Cruz has assembled both an impressive campaign war chest and a solid network of state organizations across the South and Midwest. He's capturing both billionaire and Republican grass-roots financial support. His strategy is to persevere and thrive while other candidates fall, eventually emerging as the default favorite of the Republican right.
Cruz cites the millions of evangelicals in American — he says more than half of them didn't vote in 2012.
"I think I'm in the best position to energize and mobilize and inspire the millions of conservatives who've been staying home," Cruz said.
Super Tuesday comes early in this Republican primary, just 10 days after South Carolina. Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and the big prize of Cruz's home Texas are among the conservative states that go to the polls. Come Wednesday, March 2, Cruz is counting on the GOP race looking a lot different than it did the day before.
And what of the other son of a Cuban immigrant, the Floridian who is also well-positioned and a growing favorite with Republican voters? Cruz says he would be delighted if it came down to him and Marco Rubio, two quintessential American success stories writ large. He calls Rubio a "friend" and "fellow son of Cuban immigrants" but says he still has the upper hand.
"I will say this: If the race becomes head to head, a battle between a clear conservative to a clear moderate, we win," Cruz said.
Many political pundits, and the odds makers in Vegas, think a Cruz/Rubio match-up isn't so far-fetched. These young charismatic stars are on deck — the next generation of Republican political talent. The next three months will answer the question if their time is now.