Here’s a not-that-far-fetched scenario for this crazy-quilt political season: The Republican Party, which has a huge problem with Hispanic voters, would have to choose one of two young Cuban-Americans, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, as its presidential nominee.
Many smart Republican strategists and politicians say, as they have for months, that the current front-runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, ultimately will fade, and that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, once a prohibitive favorite, won’t be able to revive his slumping campaign.
As Republicans prepare for their third presidential debate Wednesday, there is increasing chatter about an eventual contest between Sens. Rubio of Florida and Cruz of Texas.
On paper, they look like first cousins: They are both 44, freshman senators who beat the establishment Republican candidate, and sons of Cuban immigrants who fled the right-wing Batista regime. They also are self-styled Ronald Reagan conservatives with rich political sugar daddies to give them staying power in a protracted fight.
Yet their differences are stark. Cruz is much more confrontational; Rubio has been able to work better, on occasion, with Democrats. Cruz, a champion college and law school debater and clerk to the late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, seems smarter. Rubio, once the speaker of the Florida House, seems smoother.
Both hew a hard conservative line on most domestic issues, though Cruz is a bit more to the right. The Floridian favors a sharp cut in income taxes, especially for upper incomes, and Cruz talks favorably of a flat tax, without providing specifics. They don’t have many differences on social issues, though Cruz has shown a greater willingness to shut down the government to get his way on issues such as defunding Planned Parenthood.
In any showdown, the Texas senator would make a big deal of immigration, specifically Rubio’s key role in Senate passage of a reform measure that would have offered a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. That is anathema to rank- and-file conservative voters. Rubio has now changed his position.
On national security, the roles would be reversed, with Rubio taking the harder line. He has embraced Dick Cheney’s interventionist posture and has taken on advisers such as Eric Edelman, a Cheney protégé, and the neo-conservative favorite Elliott Abrams. Rubio has left open the possibility of sending more U.S. forces to combat the so-called Islamic State.
Cruz is critical of the neo-conservatives. In an interview on the Charlie Rose public television program this summer, he argued that they “have been too eager to engage in military action.” He said he would use force if U.S. interests were threatened, but would “get the heck out” afterward. “The job of our military isn’t to transform foreign nations into democratic utopias.”
The odds of a Cruz-Rubio final face-off are long. Trump and Carson have yet to crater, despite many predictions they would. Both remain strong in national polls and most state surveys.
And if another contender such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich were to score an upset in New Hampshire, any calculations would be thrown off. Or if Bush regained some footing, he could take out Rubio in the March 15 winner-take-all Florida primary.
Still, don’t rule out the possibility of a duel between Rubio, embraced by much of the establishment, and Cruz, the favorite of the movement right.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.