With foreign policy burning up the front pages, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz foreshadowed a potential 2016 Republican primary debate, going toe-to-toe with Sen. Rand Paul at a summit in California Sunday night.
The discussion, which was organized by Freedom Partners, a group funded and backed by the Charles and David Koch, discussed a broad range of topics, ranging from the upcoming 2016 campaign to entitlements, domestic policy and foreign policy.
Paul veered sharply away from Cruz and Rubio on Iran and Cuba during the nearly 80 minute discussion.
The Kentucky Republican repeated his desire to end to the embargo with Cuba, while Cruz and Rubio restated their long-standing belief that Cuba will not change until freedom takes hold on the communist island.
“I’m kind of surrounded on this one,” Paul told moderator Jonathan Karl of ABC News as Cruz and Rubio sat to his right and left.
“My sole, singular goal for Cuba is freedom and democracy,” Rubio said in response to Paul, “There is no contemporary example of where an economic opening by itself has led to a democratic opening.”
Rubio cited China as support for preserving the embargo, saying that while the Chinese have monetary freedom, they lack democracy and freedom of movement and speech.
“Just because we want to sell them a bunch of stuff doesn’t mean they will let us,” Rubio said. “I think it’s hard to argue that the president’s deal is a good one. He has basically given them a series of economic openings that they asked for. And in exchange for that, what he basically got was the release of 53 political prisoners.”
“It’s not a good deal,” Rubio remarked in conclusion.
On Iran, Cruz and Rubio criticized Paul for pushing for a diplomatic approach to ending the Iranian nuclear program.
“I’m a big fan of trying the diplomatic option as long as we can,” Paul said of the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear plan. “I do think diplomacy is better than war.”
A bipartisan group of Capitol Hill lawmakers are pushing for renewed sanctions against Iran, against the will of the White House. President Obama and several foreign leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, have warned against the push for new sanctions, with Cameron going so far to call U.S. senators personally to opt against the renewed push.
“I think the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability is the single greatest national security threat facing the United States today,” Cruz said. “The problem with Iran is Khomeini and the mullahs are radical religious Islamic nutcases.”
“The problem is if Iran ever acquired nuclear weapons, the odds are unacceptably high that it would use those nuclear weapons either in the skies of Tel Aviv or New York or Los Angeles,” Cruz said, adding that “this is the worst negotiation in the history of mankind.”
“At this pace, in five years, we’re going to build the bomb for them,” Rubio said of the Iran negotiations.
The meeting of the three potential 2016 candidates followed Saturday’s Iowa Freedom Summit, which was hosted by Rep. Steve King in Des Moines. Cruz was the only one of the three to appear at both events.