Texans eye Tea Party hero Ted Cruz for US Presidential race

As Dallas News observed, candidates are 'pushing the anti-gay, anti-illegal immigrant, anti-abortion, pro-gun and pro-religion buttons'

Austin, Texas

He may have been widely excoriated in Washington for forcing last month's government shutdown and taking America to the brink of default but in his home state Senator Ted Cruz's popularity has suffered not a jot. More than ever, Texan Republicans are indulging in a dream: Cruz for President, 2016.

That Mr Cruz, hero of the Tea Party, is only getting hotter was on display even on the first day he returned to the state after the shutdown and received an eight-minute standing ovation from a room of 800 supporters in San Antonio. His response: "After two months in Washington, it's great to be back in America." If he wants to make America in his own ultra-conservative image, Texan Republicans are kitting up to make that happen.

The extent of his influence in Texas is obvious wherever you look beginning with the 2014 races for state offices, including the governorship, already kicking off. The rush to be Mr Cruz, or even to be to the right of Mr Cruz, is on. As the Dallas News wryly observed this week, candidates are "pushing the anti-gay, anti-illegal immigrant, anti-abortion, pro-gun and pro-religion buttons like Avon ladies at a doorbell convention".

If Mr Cruz indeed has presidential ambitions - he has only been in the Senate one year - he will surely take encouragement from a post-shutdown poll released this week by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Tribune. He is the first choice of 32 per cent of Texas Republicans to be the nominee in 2016, up from 25 per cent in June. Newly elected New Jersey governor Chris Christie is favoured by 4 per cent.

"He is very secure in the Republican Party right now, in terms of both favourability and name recognition.," noted Jim Henson, head of the Texas Politics Project on campus in Austin and co-director of the poll. "He is where it's at."

Will he go for it? Top Republican operatives in Austin, from both wings of the party, believe so. "I am not convinced he has made the decision to run for president," says Matt Mackowiak, a conservative Republican consultant in Austin who knows the senator personally. "But I do not believe he will be able to say 'no', because the grassroots will force him to run."

If Texas, which hasn't seen a Democrat win statewide office since 1994, does propel Mr Cruz to the nomination would it save the Republican Party nationally or put a bomb under it? The senator says he chatted with God during the shutdown while his father, Rafael Cruz, a Cuban-born pastor at Purifying Fire Ministries, recently suggested Barack Obama "should go back to Kenya". He is not a man for the middle.

His ascent, indeed, speaks directly to the identity crisis that now besets Republicans nationally. Is the gulf between the old guard, the likes of John McCain, and the ever noisier Tea Party contingent bridgeable or not? Will the right-wing drift accelerate? Cruz or Christie in 2016 goes to the heart of the conundrum. While Mr Mackowiak thinks Mr Cruz, 42, could take the nomination if he tries, he has one big caveat: if Hillary Clinton runs for the Democrats, in his book by no means a certainty, then her appeal to the middle, independents and to women may persuade the party that Mr Christie, not Mr Cruz, would be the more viable candidate.

John Weaver, another Austin-based Republican consultant who worked on both McCain presidential campaigns, says that with its rush to the right the Texas party is driving both itself and the national GOP towards a cliff. It's inevitable at the state level because of a huge influx of Hispanics and Americans from other outside who even if they are Republicans are not with the tea party.

"The state itself is moving to centre yet our party is moving to the right and ultimately those lines are going to cross," he suggests. "The demographic numbers will get to the point where they will overtake the party. My sense is this is the last gasp, it may last four year or six years of a very right-wing party but ultimately, it will be forced out."

And Mr Cruz for president? "He may very well be our party's nominee for president in 2016, in which case he will be our George McGovern," he posited, referencing the late US senator from the far Democratic left who won the nomination in 1972 only to be trounced by Richard Nixon. "We probably have a major electoral debacle in our future."

Mr Mackowiak calls Mr Cruz the "Terminator" because he offers fiscal conservatism, libertarianism, a tie to Hispanics with his Cuban roots and the "courage of his convictions" all in one "very, very, very smart" bundle. "Cruz believes he is a Thatcher. He relies wholly on making the arguments. He doesn't take any of the shots against him personally and he never attacks back personally."

But he too concedes there may be danger in a Cruz candidacy, evoking instead Barry Goldwater, who came from the far right to win the GOP nod in 1964. He too crashed and burned taking many other Republican candidates down with him. "But you wouldn't have had Reagan, if you didn't have Goldwater."

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