There’s a reason Ted Cruz kept asking his Liberty University audience to “imagine” a conservative president: no one of normal college age has ever lived under one.
If Cruz wins the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, he will only be the third movement conservative to do so, after Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. (Liberals will count George W. Bush, but he wasn’t a product of the movement in the same sense as Reagan or Goldwater even if you think he was a conservative.)
Republican primary voters are starting to imagine a conservative president. In 1999, Dubya led the field by more than 50 points. Jeb Bush is tied with Scott Walker in the Real Clear Politics polling average.
That’s both the challenge and the opportunity for Cruz. He needs to get Republican primary voters to imagine him as their conservative president.
How does Cruz make that happen? First, the Texas senator announced his presidential campaign at Liberty University, a school founded by Jerry Falwell. Falwell, now deceased, was also one of the founders of the modern religious right.
There’s a crowded field vying for the conservative Christian vote, including Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and Rick Santorum. Walker is himself the son of a Baptist minister.
Cruz is making his own play for this vote, which will be crucial in Iowa. He is the best speaker in this group of articulate social conservatives. Carson is gaffe-prone, Santorum comes across as preachy and humorless, Huckabee (the actual preacher) is perhaps too folksy and jokey.
Ted Cruz weaves together a lot of the strengths of all of the above candidates while mostly avoiding their weaknesses. He can talk about how Christianity changed his father’s life and he can serve up red meat on conservative issues.
Then there is the challenge of other Republicans hovering around a breakout point, most notably Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, but also potentially including Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal.
Cruz will have to hit Paul on foreign policy and Rubio on immigration, but not so hard that it alienates either candidate’s base. Cruz particularly has to hope some libertarians will settle for him if Paul’s campaign fails to take off — both Ron and Rand Paul endorsed him for Senate in 2012 — as they never would the explicitly anti-libertarian Huckabee or Santorum.
If — and it’s a big if — Cruz can catapult himself to the top of this crowded field of activist conservatives, he will have to take on Walker.
On the one hand, this shouldn’t be too hard. While Walker impressed with his speech to the Iowa Freedom Summit, he is not in Cruz’s league as an orator. Neither is he as knowledgeable about national and international issues.
It is easy to imagine — always the key word for Cruz — the senator from Texas mopping the floor with Walker in a debate. The debates will be very important for Cruz.
Yet you can perform well in debates and be the social conservatives’ favorite speaker on the stump without winning the Republican presidential nomination. Just ask Alan Keyes.
Walker’s rejoinder to Cruz’s eloquent rhetoric is obvious: I’m a governor who has gotten conservative things done; you are a freshman senator who can talk a good game — a not too subtle way of comparing Cruz to Barack Obama.
Cruz will then have to make the case that efforts like his Obamacare defunding gambit (which rather noticeably concluded without Obamacare actually being defunded) moved the needle in some important way.
Barring that, perhaps Cruz can convince the base that the Obamacare battle demonstrated something about his character that conservatives should want in a president. Ronald Reagan didn’t stop the Panama Canal treaty from being ratified, but he did win a lot of hearts by opposing it.
If Cruz was only running against Jeb Bush, he could credibly contrast his conservatism with the former Florida governor’s Common Core competence as an executive. Walker offers Republican primary voters both executive experience and conservatism, and he’s already close to Bush in the polls.
Whether Cruz can close that sale or not, his presidential campaign will be an interesting test. He reportedly wants to raise $40 to $50 million, a hefty sum without many of the establishment bigwigs or Paulite libertarians inclined to give to him. He’ll have to fundraise largely off smaller grassroots donors who were galvanized by his Obamacare fight.
No matter how far Cruz makes it in the race, his presidential campaign will be a major test of grassroots conservative strength. These are the imaginations Cruz must capture first.
W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.