TIME Scott Walker

Why Scott Walker’s Immigration Flip-Flop Could Hurt

Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during a meeting with area Republicans on April 19, 2015, in Derry, N.H.
Jim Cole—AP Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during a meeting with area Republicans on April 19, 2015, in Derry, N.H.

It sets him apart from primary rivals and party elites

In the early stages of a presidential campaign, the controversy du jour is often less important than it may seem. This is the season of listening tours and message testing, when the real drama is offstage and a trip to Chipotle can command the national news cycle.

But the brewing kerfuffle over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s new immigration position is a case where there’s more to the matter than meets the eye. His shift on the issue this week could alter the GOP primary, both by setting him apart from key rivals on a critical issue and by reinforcing questions about whether the Wisconsin governor has a habit of revising his policy positions for political gain.

“The next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages,” Walker said Monday during an interview with Glenn Beck. “It is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today—what is this doing, not only to American workers looking for jobs, but what is it doing to the wages, and we need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.”

Walker’s remarks — which also name-checked GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions, an outspoken opponent of immigration reform — were a departure from many of his past comments on the issue. By raising questions about legal immigration levels, he appeared to espouse a protectionist approach that positions him to the right of much of the GOP primary field.

“Sad to see the full, Olympics-quality flip-flop by a former boss today,” tweeted Liz Mair, who quit her job as a political aide to Walker amid a controversy over her prior criticism of Iowa’s prominent role in the presidential nominating contest.

The shift in policy separates the Badger State Republican from top primary opponents on one of the party’s most dramatic fault lines. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have supported an overhaul of U.S. immigration law. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has decried the idea of mass deportations and supported work visas and a legal status for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.

“Governor Walker supports American workers’ wages and the U.S. economy and thinks both should be considered when crafting a policy for legal immigration,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Our American Revival, an organization formed to support Walker’s presidential bid. “He strongly supports legal immigration, and like many Americans, believes that our economic situation should be considered instead of arbitrary caps on the amount of immigrants that can enter.”

Walker’s position hasn’t gone over well with some of the party’s top strategists, who believe a more inclusive approach to immigration is both sound policy and smart politics. Nor does it wash with some of the GOP’s most influential donors and thinkers, a group that can alter the trajectory of the presidential primary.

A vast cross-section of business organizations, special-interest groups and Republican bigwigs favor immigration reform — from industrialists who need cheap farm labor to Silicon Valley tech firms that are lobbying to loosen restrictions on H1B visas. Walker’s stance could inhibit his ability to attract the big money he needs behind his campaign. The billionaire Koch brothers, for example, have seeded an organization, known as the Libre Initiative, whose goal is to pitch conservative principles to the Latino voters who overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. “Any call, by anyone, to further restrict legal immigration is not a viable, nor an acceptable policy remedy,” Daniel Garza, the executive director of the Libre Initiative, said Tuesday.

“The overwhelming majority of Americans, Democrats as well as Republicans, want the federal government to secure our borders,” says former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who has worked to drum up support for an immigration overhaul that make undocumented workers who meet various conditions eligible to apply for green cards. “That same majority understands that we need to increase the number of H1B visas, that there are essential jobs for which we need immigrants, particularly agriculture … we need guest workers in those essential jobs.”

But from a short-term perspective, Walker’s shift may be shrewd politics. He is tapping into a deep vein of populism that runs through the party, especially in early voting states like Iowa, where antipathy toward “amnesty” is an animating value. A January Gallup poll revealed that 60% of Americans are dissatisfied with current immigration levels, including 84% of Republicans.

One veteran GOP strategist said simply that Walker “has got to perform well in Iowa” and that he wouldn’t do so with the more centrist approach he’s taken in the past.

In 2006, when Walker served as Milwaukee County executive, he urged the Senate to pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill. In 2010, when controversial legislation in Arizona became a national flashpoint, Walker criticized the bill. (Just days later, he reversed his position after further researching the issue, according to his then-campaign manager.) In 2013, as Senate leaders worked to craft a bipartisan rewrite of U.S. immigration law, Walker supported a path to citizenship. Asked the same year if he could envision citizenship for immigrants after penalties, waiting periods and other conditions were put in place, Walker told the Wausau Daily Herald: “Sure. Yeah. I think it makes sense.”

And now? “My view has changed,” Walker told Fox News on March 1, opposing a path to citizenship in any form.

Every politician, like every constituent, has a right to change his or her mind. But a windblown approach to policy could shatter the steadfast image Walker earned in the Wisconsin union brawl, and which he hoped to leverage as a cornerstone of his all-but-certain presidential campaign. “It shreds your argument if you say you’re going to be the principled guy,” says the GOP strategist, “but here are all these examples of where he flipped.”

The examples are mounting. There was Walker’s reversal on ethanol subsides, another Iowa hot-button which he backed this spring after formerly opposing. There was his push to repeal Common Core when it became politically toxic in 2014, after previously supporting the standards. There was his decision to sign a right-to-work law after years of disavowing interest in pursuing such a policy.

Walker started well in the Republican nominating contest this year, riding a wave of momentum generated by a strong performance in an early Iowa cattle call. But he is a newcomer to the national stage. Many Republican voters have yet to form their first impression of the Wisconsin governor. Getting tagged with a flip-flopper label could prove an impassable obstacle.

“You do not want to be in a position where you build up a track record of moving around on issues,” says another veteran Republican consultant. “It’s absolutely fatal.”

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller

TIME 2016 Election

Influential GOP Group Backs Cruz, Paul and Rubio

U.S. Senator Rubio announces bid for the Republican nomination in the 2016 U.S. presidential election race during speech in Miami
Joe Skipper–Reuters U.S. Senator Marco Rubio announces his bid for the Republican nomination in the 2016 U.S. presidential election race during a speech in Miami, Fla. on April 13, 2015.

Conservative outside groups could be poised to play a kingmaker role in the 2016 nominating contest

The first three candidates to enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination earned rave reviews Thursday from a powerful conservative group.

The Club for Growth, a deep-pocketed network of economic conservatives, published detailed analyses of the voting records of Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio that heaped praise on each of the candidates.

“Cruz, Paul, and Rubio are the real deal,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh. “We’ve looked at their records and their rhetoric, and they give us hope for the future of the GOP on fiscal policies.”

The verdicts weren’t a surprise. The Club backed each of the candidates in their campaigns for the Senate, and all three have amassed staunchly conservative voting records during their short stints on Capitol Hill. But the rave reviews were a reminder that conservative interest groups are poised to play a kingmaker role in the 2016 nominating contest, pulling candidates to the right in the process.

The Club has long been known for spending large sums to oppose candidates who stray on economic issues. But it is considering a more aggressive role in this year’s GOP primary, including a possible endorsement. In late February the group drew a range of presidential hopefuls — including Cruz, Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — to address a donors’ conclave in Florida.

The group found quibbles with each of the first three candidates, from Cruz and Paul’s support of special tax credits for NASCAR to Rubio’s proposed top marginal tax rate. But overall, it spared little praise for the Senators. “Cruz has shown extraordinary determination in the fight against Obamacare,” McIntosh said. “Paul’s budget proposals are a blueprint for limited government, and Rubio has drafted a massively pro-growth tax cut and reform plan.”

It’s a far cry from the 2012 presidential race, when the group was lukewarm or worse on candidates ranging from Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty to Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum. And there will surely be 2016 candidates who don’t fare as well. (Keep an eye out for a withering assessment of Mike Huckabee.) But the first batch of reviews was a early sign that this cycle’s crop of candidates will produce a far more competitive — and potentially just as conservative — race after the yawner of four years ago.

TIME Marco Rubio

Why Marco Rubio’s Presidential Bid Makes Republicans Nervous

U.S. Senator Rubio announces bid for the Republican nomination in the 2016 U.S. presidential election race during speech in Miami
Joe Skipper–Reuters U.S. Senator Marco Rubio announces his bid for the Republican nomination in the 2016 U.S. presidential election race during a speech in Miami, Fla. on April 13, 2015.

It throws a costly, competitive Senate race up for grabs

When he announced his campaign for President on Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio noted that not everyone in his party was thrilled about the idea. “I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn,” the Florida Republican told supporters gathered at Miami’s Freedom Tower.

Rubio wasn’t just alluding to critics who question his decision to run for the White House while still in his first term in the Senate. He was also talking about some of his allies on Capitol Hill, who were tracking his deliberations for an entirely different reason.

The freshman Senator, 43, is also up for re-election in 2016. And when he jumped into the race for the White House, Rubio reaffirmed his decision not to defend his Senate seat. “If you’ve decided that you want to serve this country as its president, that’s what you should be running for,” he explained to NPR in the wake of his campaign launch.

Rubio’s decision to ditch the Senate puts the GOP in a bit of a bind. Republicans recaptured the chamber last fall, but in 2016 they will be defending 24 seats to the Democrats’ 10. With a shaky majority and an unforgiving electoral map this go-round, the GOP was counting on Rubio — a proven fundraiser with name recognition and some cross-party appeal — to win re-election in one of the nation’s few true swing states.

Instead Republicans now seem destined for a contested primary and competitive general election that will force them to spend extravagantly to keep the seat. “It’s a problem,” says a former senior official with the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). “The challenge that Rubio presents is that there’s a $20 million hole that was just blown in the NRSC budget.”

To skirt this problem, some Republicans quietly sought to persuade Rubio to stay in the Senate, arguing he faced an uphill contest against former Gov. Jeb Bush, a fellow Floridian who has been soaking up the support and largesse of the party’s most powerful donors. If strategists in Washington fretted about shelling out millions to protect the seat, some GOP operatives and donors in the Sunshine State were shocked Rubio would run against Bush, who remains a dominant figure in the state and whom Rubio has described as a mentor.

“There’s a lot of angst about him running” for President, says one veteran Republican consultant, who believes Rubio’s bid for the Oval Office is a long shot. “He would’ve held onto the [Senate] seat. He’s a terrific fundraiser, and it probably wouldn’t have been as competitive.”

Republicans have a deep bench in Florida. “Florida Republicans have consistently demonstrated a proven capacity to win statewide races and we look forward to electing another strong Republican like Senator Rubio,” says Kevin McLaughlin, deputy executive director of the NRSC. But the GOP Senate campaign arm may struggle to recruit a candidate of comparable strength. Already two top potential candidates, state chief financial officer Jeff Atwater and former state House speaker Will Weatherford, have passed on the race.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy has announced a run for the Democratic nomination. In the absence of Rubio, the race could be one of the nation’s toughest. Last month the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling surveyed hypothetical match-ups between eight leading prospective contenders from both parties; on average, the Democrat led by less than one point. Rubio, in contrast, was running well ahead of top Democratic rivals.

That’s why some Republicans are holding out hope that he reconsiders his decision if his presidential run fails to gather steam. As Rubio has noted, Florida election law bars a candidate from running for two offices on the same ballot. But the filing deadline to jump into the Senate race isn’t until May 2016, leaving plenty of time to test the waters in Iowa and New Hampshire. It would hardly be an unusual strategy. Fellow Republican Sen. Rand Paul is running for re-election in Kentucky as he mounts a bid for the White House after lobbying the state party to change its election laws to allow him to do both.

But Rubio has always been a man in a hurry, and as he’s confessed to allies, the Senate’s sclerosis has frustrated him. This dissatisfaction with the job helps explain why he’s ready to relinquish it for a shot at the presidency. And some longtime Florida political hands argue Rubio’s stock in the GOP primary is undervalued.

“There were a lot of Republicans who were shocked, at times even indignant, that Marco would step out of line,” says Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic strategist who served as a top adviser to both of Barack Obama’s Florida campaigns. “I’m in the camp that thinks he’s going to do better than most people have been saying.”

With reporting by Alex Rogers and Zeke J. Miller

TIME Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio Waits for His Moment

Slow and steady wins the race, he hopes

When Marco Rubio launched his presidential campaign Monday evening in Miami, it’s a safe bet the speech made a lot of Republicans remember why they dubbed him presidential material.

Nobody in the GOP can spin a yarn like the freshman Senator from Florida. Rubio’s bootstrap narrative, rhetorical flourishes and emphasis on American exceptionalism have made him one of the few national figures capable of bridging the chasms between the party’s grassroots base, billionaire donors and the Washington establishment.

These gifts were on display in Rubio’s announcement speech, which framed the 2016 presidential election as a clash between leaders “stuck in the 2oth century” and those looking toward the future.

“Yesterday is over, and we are never going back” he told supporters. “We must change the decisions we are making by changing the people who are making them.”

The question is whether now is Rubio’s time. For much of the past two years, it hasn’t looked that way.

Rubio, 43, was a conservative sensation in 2013 when he joined a bipartisan group of Senators to craft a rewrite of U.S. immigration laws. (TIME put him on the cover, anointing him “The Republican Savior.”) Rubio became the face of the GOP effort to rebrand itself with Hispanics in the wake of an election in which they got clobbered in the contest for the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, winning just 27% of the Latino vote.

The gamble backfired. Comprehensive immigration reform collapsed amid a revolt from conservatives, who were incensed by a deal they decried as “amnesty.” And Rubio, whose upset Senate victory in 2010 was driven by Tea Party activists, was left to labor offstage as his presidential rivals vacuumed up money and hype.

His comeback strategy was simple. Rubio adopted an intentionally low profile as he repaired his relationship with the party base. In Washington he focused his efforts on foreign policy, returning to his roots as one of the Senate’s pre-eminent hawks. And he quietly wooed bigwig donors in small meetings and private conferences, nurturing a small yet loyal cadre of backers.

Rubio’s plunge into the 2016 pool will make a splash. But don’t be surprised if he soon returns to the low-profile approach on the campaign trail. There will be visits to early states and countless meetings with donors, but Rubio doesn’t expect to rocket to the front of the primary pack anytime soon. A protégé of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Rubio can’t match the fundraising prowess of the son and brother of Presidents. (His jab at Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton Monday as “a leader from yesterday” appeared to be a shot at Bush as well.) Nor can he squash Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s surge in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Instead Rubio’s path to the party’s nomination relies on running a lean, upbeat campaign that blooms late, advisers say. At this stage, being a lot of voters’ second choice can be a first-rate strategy. The campaign hopes the base never warms to Bush, its romance with Walker proves fleeting and the social-conservative vote is divvied up between the various candidates vying for it. Then Rubio’s lean campaign operation will expand rapidly, and he can capitalize on his personal magnetism through the platform provided by the presidential debates. Rubio aides point to the roller-coaster GOP primary in 2012 as evidence that strategy can work.

Rubio has never lost an election, and his gifts as a candidate are easy to spot. In a race dominated by scuffed dynasties, he offers optimism and freshness: a youthful face who can connect with new constituencies by speaking Spanish, talking football and quoting rappers. In a party of aging white guys, a 43-year-old Hispanic who hails from a top swing state carries certain benefits.

The son of Cuban refugees will lean heavily on his biography. Rubio’s mother made a living as a hotel maid; his dad worked as a bartender. Their son called the journey from serving drinks in the back of the room to announcing a presidential campaign at the front of one “the essence of the American dream.”

His announcement at Miami’s Freedom Tower, the so-called Ellis Island for thousands of Cuban refugees — “a symbol of our nation’s identity as a land of opportunity,” Rubio said — highlights the role that his personal narrative will play in his pitch. And Rubio’s campaign will rely on his charisma: polls show his approval ratings among the highest in the party.

This strategy is a proven winner at the presidential level, but perhaps not in a way that Rubio’s backers are eager to point out. As a freshman Senator with a minority background, a compelling personal story and dazzling oratorical chops, Rubio is the closest thing in the Republican Party to Barack Obama. At this time in 2007, Obama was an underdog, polling well behind the Clinton juggernaut. His victory illustrates the viability of Rubio’s strategy.

At the same time, the GOP has spent the past seven years decrying Obama as a nice guy with a light résumé who proved to be out of his depth in the Oval Office. The challenge for Rubio will be to bottle Obama’s campaign magic without reminding them too much of the man he’s seeking to succeed.

TIME Rand Paul

A Changed Rand Paul Vows to Change the Republican Party

A Tea Party favorite must play to the GOP base before he can expand the electorate

Sen. Rand Paul announced a run for the White House Tuesday, armed with a message he said was “loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our country back.”

Paul’s speech nodded at his younger fans, as well as making a pitch as a presidential candidate for limited government and fiscal conservatism. A campaign video released Monday had set up the Kentucky Senator as the one man who can “defeat the Washington machine and unleash the American dream.” The words linger atop a silhouette of the candidate as supporters chant “President Paul.”

Forgive Paul for going generic with his slogan; there are only so many active verbs and available bromides left in our shared campaign storage unit. But the choice is emblematic of a larger branding decision that could help shape the fate of his presidential bid. Paul rose through the ranks by promising to change the Republican Party, but on the cusp of his campaign he has tweaked his own positions to fit within the GOP.

Ever since his 2013 filibuster against Barack Obama’s drone policy vaulted him from Tea Party curiosity to the forefront of the GOP, Paul has boasted a clearer rationale for a presidential bid than any of his rivals. He has been telling audiences that a party staring down the barrel of demographic change must become bigger, broader and more inclusive to win back the White House. His campaign is predicated on the promise that he can attract a younger, more diverse coalition of voters through issues ranging from a more restrained foreign policy to criminal-justice reforms to reining in domestic spying.

The pitch has made Paul a powerful player in the GOP presidential field. He is running at or near the top of the polls, with a stocked bank account and a political network wired through key early states. Instead of downplaying expectations, Paul prefers to stoke the hype. “Nobody is running better against Hillary Clinton than myself,” he told Fox News.

“The path to the nomination is virtually set up for us,” says Doug Wead, a friend and adviser to Paul who notes the senator’s organizational strength and ideological appeal in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. “It’s within the realm of possibility that we could have three sequential wins” out of the gate.

But even as he claims frontrunner status, there’s a question of whether the Kentucky senator has missed his ideological moment. Paul’s rise in the polls over the past two years came as the Republican Party warmed to the merits of Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy after more than a decade of war. In one June 2014 survey, 53% of Republicans said the U.S. should “mind its own business” abroad, up from just 22% in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Yet in recent months, as the U.S. ramped up nuclear negotiations that would ease sanctions on Iran and the Islamic State released a series of ghastly beheading videos, the GOP has rediscovered its hawkish impulses. A Quinnipiac poll last month found that 73% of Republicans now support sending ground troops to battle ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Paul has reacted to the Republican regression on foreign policy with an apparent evolution of his own. Lately he’s shelved his signature non-interventionism in favor of more conventionally muscular rhetoric. When it comes to federal spending, he told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, “for me, the priority is always national defense.” A few weeks later, he introduced an amendment calling for a $190 billion boost to the defense budget—a head-snapping reversal from his 2011 proposal to cut defense spending and reduce war funding from $159 billion to zero.

Paul supporters say the shift is a function of changing conditions in the Middle East, not a strategic repositioning. (His campaign spokesman did not return a request for comment for this story.) In any event, it may do little to assuage GOP hawks, who remain deeply leery of Paul. Meanwhile, it may may complicate matters on another front. To win the primary contest, Paul has to pull off a delicate balancing act: expand his political coalition without alienating the demanding libertarian supporters inherited from his father. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign was derided by the political class as more farce than force, but to fans he was a beacon of clarity. His son risks irking the libertarian faithful by softening his stances to suit the political climate.

Foreign policy isn’t the only realm where Paul has modulated his message. He has long argued the federal government should let states decide the question of gay marriage. “The Republican Party,” he told CNN, “can have people on both sides of the issue.” Now he is telling socially conservative audiences that gay marriage is a “moral crisis” which “offends myself and a lot of other people.”

This kind of talk may help Paul with Evangelicals in Iowa. But it won’t win over the young voters or independents he often brags about bringing into the GOP fold. Nor is there much proof that the bridge-building he’s done with communities of color will translate into votes. And on issues where Paul’s positions once stood out, such as criminal-justice reform or drug policy, some of his Republican competitors have since caught up.

What’s left if Paul sands down his edges? Perhaps a relatively conventional Republican candidate. Paul’s campaign calls him “a different kind of Republican,” but the issues he emphasizes in his debut video are standard GOP fare, from term limits to a balanced budget to jabs at Congress and the failures of liberalism. His political operation is a vast and motley assemblage, with top staffers who worked for the likes of Rick Santorum and George W. Bush. A man who made his name inveighing against foreign misadventures will campaign in South Carolina this week atop a World War II-era aircraft carrier, a totem of American military might. He is running against Washington from a perch in the Senate, using testimonials from D.C. talking heads to argue he is different.

Paul has undertaken the ambitious project of selling a hidebound party on the merits of reinvention. And if it may seem to some as though he has reinvented himself in the process, supporters say the occasional shift in tone is just part of the larger deal.

“The overriding goal for Rand Paul is to make government smaller,” says David Adams, his former Senate campaign manager. “Anything that needs to be tweaked or massaged or polished to get from here to there is fair game. He will come under a lot of criticism for saying things that sound different from what he may have said at another time, but he has consistently and persistently moved toward making government smaller and winning the ultimate battle.”

Read next: What Happened When Rand Paul First Got Into Politics

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TIME Campaign Finance

How Super PACs Are Taking Over

US-VOTE-REPUBLICANS
Paul J. Richards—AFP/Getty Images US Senator Ted Cruz( R-TX) smiles at the crowd while delivering remarks announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination to run for US president March 23, 2015, inside the full Vine Center at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va.

A new breed of high-dollar outside groups is reshaping the 2016 presidential race

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz says he no longer listens to classic rock, but he still found a way to channel the lyrics of John Lennon when he launched his presidential campaign. “Imagine,” he told students at Virginia’s Liberty University on March 23, repeating the refrain 38 times in a half-hour stem winder that felt less like a campaign speech than a guided tour of a conservative Valhalla.

The dreamy slogan may have seemed out of whack for the firebrand politician. But in some ways Cruz was just following the lead of an independent group that hopes to make him President.

Weeks before Cruz climbed onstage, the Stand for Principle PAC printed and passed out T-shirts and placards that read “Imagine Ted Cruz as President.” The group’s organizer, Maria Strollo Zack, says helping Cruz promote his message is just the start. Zack wants to raise as much as $50 million—perhaps more than the campaign—to pay for anything from television ads to grassroots outreach. “We’re rewriting the book on how super PACs can be leveraged,” she says.

So are Cruz’s rivals. Likely candidates such as Jeb Bush and Scott Walker have been deeply involved in setting up their outside-spending vehicles, installing top staff and drawing down funds to pay for early voter contact, including trips to primary states. Such efforts are the latest way to game the traditional campaign-finance system, which limits the amount of money individuals can give to candidates and forbids direct donations from corporations. The Cruz super PAC, for instance, is barred from directly coordinating campaign spending or strategy with Cruz, but it is able to raise and spend unlimited sums on the candidate’s behalf while collecting money from just about anyone.

In 2012 super PACs were used as blunt instruments of destruction: the group backing Mitt Romney devoted about 90% of the $142 million it spent overall to TV attack ads. But in the 2016 presidential race, these organizations are poised to play a much bigger role, taking over more-traditional campaign duties ranging from field organizing and voter turnout to direct mail and digital microtargeting. “They are becoming de facto campaigns,” says Fred Davis, a Republican media consultant who ran former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s presidential super PAC in 2012.

Campaign-finance watchdogs say that super PACs, which were created in the wake of two 2010 court rulings, undermine spending limits that have governed elections for generations and allow high-dollar donors to amass influence that Congress has long sought to prevent. The new crop of super PACs are now pushing boundaries in ways that were unimaginable just five years ago. “The sky’s the limit.” says Carl Forti, a GOP strategist who co-founded the Romney super PAC in 2012.

Many Republican hopefuls have delayed their official campaign announcements so they can spend more time and energy seeding their outside groups. Bush, the former Florida governor, has been dropping in on donors’ conclaves across the Republican Party’s wealthiest precincts, soliciting massive checks for his Right to Rise super PAC. Mike Murphy, Bush’s longtime senior adviser, is expected to stay at the super PAC to orchestrate its strategy rather than migrate to the campaign.

Walker’s high-dollar outside group, Our American Revival, is run by the Wisconsin governor’s future campaign manager, Rick Wiley, who—like Walker’s spokesperson, senior political advisers and key field staff in states like Iowa and New Hampshire—is drawing a salary from the organization until the formal campaign kicks off. Former New York governor George Pataki charged up to $250,000 per head at a fundraiser for his group, We the People Not Washington, which features a form on its website for supporters to request a meeting with Pataki. And as Hillary Clinton marches toward a likely campaign launch, her super-PAC supporters at Ready for Hillary are laying the groundwork by adding to their email rolls and signing up a flurry of new members for the group’s finance council.

Much of this activity exploits a legal loophole. “What’s unique,” says Anthony Corrado, chairman of the board of trustees at the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, “is candidates becoming associated with a super PAC before embarking on a campaign.” Building early receptacles for large checks may also limit the amount of time candidates are forced to spend raising money later on.

As the balance of power shifts toward super PACs, the strategists running them are studying the ways outside committees can be more than just attack machines once the campaigns take flight. “Every super PAC will have to decide what their mission should be and how they want to game plan,” says Austin Barbour, who will run former Texas governor Rick Perry’s super PAC if Perry jumps into the race. “But we’re in a post-TV age.” Super PACs will take on a variety of new tasks over the next year, from grassroots organizing and micro-targeting to digital operations. “Those will all be a part of any well-run super PAC this cycle,” predicts a GOP strategist running another likely presidential candidate’s outside group.

The question no one has an answer for yet is how a super PAC’s time and money can dovetail with the campaign’s efforts instead of duplicating them. Since such groups are barred from coordinating strategy with campaigns after the candidates declare, they may struggle to run complementary data or field operations. But campaign-finance watchdogs worry the rules will be flouted because there’s nobody to enforce them. “It’s open season,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, who notes that three of the six members of the Federal Election Commission—the agency in charge of overseeing political spending—view money as a form of speech and are ideologically opposed to reining it in. And while the Department of Justice can prosecute violations of campaign-finance law, experts predict they will be wary of doing so except in extreme cases.

Candidates will be able to send strategic cues in public statements that super PACs can pick up on. But campaign strategists say the anything-goes legal landscape could ultimately cause problems for the indiscreet. “Someone’s going to get popped,” one predicts. “The question is who and when.”

After his speech at Liberty, Cruz began a fundraising tour that would whisk him to meetings with New York financiers, Texas investors and other executives. Within 36 hours, he said he had raised more than $1 million for his actual campaign. The cash infusion was overdue: Cruz’s coffers are already dwarfed by those of rivals like Bush. As a federal officeholder, Cruz hasn’t had the same freedom to work with his super PAC.

But the outside group will be there to help him with his stated strategy—to win the nomination by mustering a grassroots army that mixes the Tea Party faithful with the social conservatives who dominate the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. And at the head of the brigade is an old pal: Cruz’s college roommate and debate partner David Panton, a Jamaican-born Atlanta private-equity executive who cut the super PAC its first $100,000 check last November. “I think he should be President,” Panton says. “It requires a lot of money to run a presidential campaign.”

Zack says the Senator can live on less cash than his rivals but insists that support will be there when he needs it. After all, Stand for Principle can get Cruz himself to juice fundraising by appearing at its events, as long as he does not ask for the money directly. Just imagine the possibilities.

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller and Michael Scherer/Washington

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TIME 2016 Election

How Ted Cruz Plans to Disrupt the GOP Presidential Primary

Ted Cruz
Andrew Harnik—AP U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) stands on stage while speaking to a crowd gathered to announce his presidential candidacy at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. on March 23, 2015.

Once again, the firebrand senator is betting that his best shot to win is breaking the old rules

Ted Cruz’s decision to launch his presidential campaign on Monday breaks all the customs of a typical candidate announcement.

Presidential hopefuls tend to kick off the quest for the White House on home turf, after forming an exploratory committee and at the beginning of a new fundraising period, which allows them to maximize the amount of time they can spend raising money before filing their first report. In contrast, the Texas Senator will declare his intentions during a convocation speech at Liberty University in Virginia, forgoing an exploratory committee to formally jump into the race in the final weeks of the first quarter.

Cruz’s move, confirmed in a Twitter message just after midnight Monday ahead of a speech later in the day, may be unconventional. But since arriving in the Senate in 2013, the firebrand Texan has bet that the new way to win in politics is to break the old rules. A freshman Senator is supposed to focus on committee work, forge alliances, sidestep the spotlight. Instead, Cruz led the charge to shut down the government, alienated his Republican colleagues and reveled in the controversy, which vaulted him to conservative superstardom.

This is the context you need to understand how Cruz, the first major GOP candidate to formally launch a bid for the White House, plans to run his presidential campaign. “What I’m trying to do, more than anything else,” he explained last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, “is bring a disruptive app to politics.”

MORE Read TIME‘s 2013 profile of Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Like most of his unorthodox moves, the details of his announcement make some strategic sense. Cruz’s campaign will be based in his hometown of Houston, but it aspires to become national grassroots movement, with the Republican Party’s most conservative voters on its front lines. To win the nomination, Cruz will have to muster an army that combines the Tea Party faithful with the GOP’s social conservative wing and foreign-policy hawks.

That’s where the location of Monday’s announcement comes in. Liberty, a Lynchburg-based school founded by influential pastor Jerry Falwell, is a cradle of Christian conservatism; Cruz also chose it for a major speech last year about religious freedom. The venue is a clear signal that the Senator intends to court the GOP’s evangelical wing, which dominates the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

The timing of the rollout is also logical. As a federal officeholder, he is restricted from coordinating with his super PAC, which limits the benefits of delaying his announcement. Due to the advantages of launching in April—which puts off the requirement of reporting fundraising tallies until mid-July—the political calendar next month is expected to be crowded with campaign announcements from the likes of Rand Paul, Hillary Clinton and others. By jumping in now, Cruz is able to grab the spotlight without rivals around to share it.

He could use the boost. In the early phases of the GOP primary, Cruz has been less a leading man than an afterthought. An average of early Iowa polls shows Cruz running ninth, pulling about 4% of the vote. In the fight to win the hearts of Hawkeye State social conservatives, he faces competition from former caucus winners Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, as well as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist preacher.

Indeed, many Republican strategists have dismissed Cruz as a serious contender for the nomination. They argue that his appeal is deep but narrow, confined to the far-right reaches of the party. He is estranged from the Washington establishment and the GOP donor class because of maneuvers such as the government shutdown. Even in Texas, he has to compete for money and influence with former governor Rick Perry’s likely presidential campaign and the deep-rooted Bush network. (Cruz’s advisers plan to raise $40 million to $50 million to compete in the primary, the Chronicle reports.)

The outside groups that helped marshal support for his Senate bid, such as the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, are unlikely to play the same role in a nominating contest crowded with conservative stars. Like Paul and Rubio, he will have to overcome the challenge of running as a first-term Senator after the GOP has spent the past seven years dismissing Barack Obama as too callow for the job.

But Cruz has always worn the naysaying of Washington Republicans as a badge of honor. He has long believed that he can galvanize the GOP grassroots and run a guerrilla campaign funded by small-dollar checks. As a national strategy, it has precedent in Obama’s own 2008 primary campaign, which Cruz sought to replicate in his one successful political race. “There were two campaigns on which we modeled our campaign for Senate, and they were Obama’s campaign for President in 2008 and Marco Rubio’s campaign for Senate in 2010,” he told TIME in 2013. Cruz studied the Obama blueprint so closely that for Christmas one year, he gave staffers copies of The Audacity to Win, the manual written by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.

Cruz has assets that could lift him in the primary, including a preacher father with evangelical ties, a day job that offers him a national pulpit and oratorical chops that made him a national debating champion at Princeton. He will run as the race’s one untainted conservative: even in Iowa, he has declined to participate in the quadrennial ethanol pander. “He has the broadest appeal of all the conservative candidates, appealing to Iowa’s evangelicals, tea partyers, and liberty faction without changing anything about who he is,” said Steve Deace, a conservative Iowa talk radio host. “He’s arguably the best soldier the conservative cause has had in recent memory.”

Running as a purist has limits, of course, and GOP critics are confident the presidential primary will expose the flaws in the strategy. Beginning Monday, Cruz will try to prove them wrong once more.

With reporting by Zeke J. Miller

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TIME 2016 Election

CPAC: 12 Takeaways as the GOP Presidential Race Takes Off

Rand Paul speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.
Mark Peterson—Redux for TIME Supporters watch Rand Paul speak at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.

Checking the scoreboard on day three

There’s still a straw-poll winner to announce, but the biggest story lines at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference have already unfolded. Here are the 12 big takeaways from the annual gathering:

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker kept the momentum alive. Riding a wave of fresh support after his Iowa debut last month, Walker was the talk of the conference and emerged even stronger despite a dustup over his comparing union protesters to ISIS fighters.

The hawkish GOP is back. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has tempered the dovish streak percolating within the party, as speaker after speaker advocated a more muscular approach to fighting the terrorist group.

That could spell trouble for Rand Paul. The Kentucky Senator is still a CPAC favorite and a force in the party, but one of the pillars of his appeal may be eroding.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush can handle the base. In a lively question-and-answer session, Bush found his footing after an uneven start and managed to escape unscathed. “That was raucous and wild,” he told supporters after, “and I loved it.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did what he had to do: convince donors and voters alike that he’s still alive and kicking in the GOP nominating fight. No one was expecting a barn burner from the moderate governor at CPAC, but he showed some familiar fight in a tough interview with radio host Laura Ingraham, peppering his answers with shots at the media and his 2016 opponents.

Republicans haven’t figured out how to prosecute former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s economic priorities. Speaker after speaker tied her to Obama’s foreign policy record, but mentions of her domestic agenda—and President Obama’s—were rare and disjointed.

Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina had another strong performance, showcasing her willingness to forcefully criticize Clinton. Fiorina has no natural constituency or discernible path to the nomination, but her ability to play Hillary’s foil positions her for success on the debate stage and could lift her to a spot on the veep short list or a Cabinet position if Republicans win the White House.

Moderators matter. The GOP is determined to mitigate the mainstream media’s impact on the nominating process, but CPAC showed that tapping ideologues to quiz the candidates carries its own problems. Fox News personality Sean Hannity served up softballs and cracked wise about former President Bill Clinton’s womanizing, while radio host Laura Ingraham laid bare her own biases by lambasting Bush and pushing Christie to do the same.

Sarah Palin can use her for talents for good. The former Alaska governor has long drawn eye rolls and sighs from Republicans for her fake flirtations with the presidency and outlandish or sometimes incoherent statements. But at CPAC, Palin delivered a substantive, impassioned speech on veterans issues that called on both parties to address the needs of those returning from war.

The First Amendment only goes so far. Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson received a First Amendment Award for speaking about his faith. But the bearded reality-TV personality blew through his allotted time limit, uncorking such a long, rambling speech that the CPAC organizers had to cue up music to drive him offstage.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz will run a populist, anti-Washington campaign that juxtaposes his principled stands in the Senate with the waffling of his rivals. That should make him a force in Iowa, but he still hasn’t shown how a zealous base will give him the math needed to win the nomination in this field.

Rick Santorum is the Republican Rodney Dangerfield. The former Pennsylvania Senator carried 11 states in the 2012 nominating contest, finishing second to Mitt Romney. It was an impressive feat—yet he still gets no respect from the base, who filed out of the CPAC ballroom en masse during Santorum’s speech on Friday.

TIME

CPAC: Republicans Rediscover Their Old Hawkish Message On Foreign Policy

Rand Paul speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.
Mark Peterson—Redux for TIME Rand Paul speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.

The threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria looms large

Rand Paul took the stage like a conquering hero Friday, his shirtsleeves rolled, his regular laconic manner turned fiery. The audience stacked with young libertarians gave him a standing ovation. But Paul, who became the reigning prince of the Conservative Political Action Conference partly by preaching his signature brand of non-interventionist foreign policy, had a new twist in his stump speech.

Paul tamped down his famous skepticism of military adventures, and replaced it with the more conventionally muscular rhetoric of Cold War conservatism. “Without question, we must now defend ourselves and American interests,” he said, in comments about the fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). When it came to the question of federal spending, he added, “for me, the priority is always national defense.”

Paul was hardly the only presumptive presidential candidate to focus on the perils brewing abroad. The annual confab of conservative activists, held this week outside Washington, has showcased the Republican Party’s new embrace of its old hawkish foreign policy. It’s a dramatic shift from recent years, when CPAC has been a forum for the party to air its grievances about the sprawling U.S. surveillance state. But for the past two days, speaker after speaker has sought to demonstrate their steeliness, earning reliable cheers by taunting ISIS and slamming President Obama for seeking a deal with Iran while snubbing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Likely 2016 candidates, from Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to Scott Walker and Carly Fiorina, all roused the crowd by promising a tougher brand of foreign policy than the one practiced by Obama and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Former Senator Rick Santorum, the runner-up for the Republican nomination in 2012, called for 10,000 U.S. ground troops in the middle to battle ISIS and urged “bombing them back to the seventh century.”

This view is increasingly popular within the party. A mid-February poll conducted by CBS News found that 72% of Republicans favor sending U.S. ground troops into Iraq or Syria to fight ISIS militants, an increase of seven percentage points since only October. That leap comes as the issue replaces the brightening economy at the top of newscasts.

According to aides to several candidates, the increased focus on foreign policy in stump speeches reflects increasing public concern as well as the belief among several campaigns that Republicans will have an edge with voters on security issues in a race against Clinton.

“Folks are getting beheaded over there,” says an adviser to one likely candidate. “People are seeing the failure of this president’s foreign policy on TV every day.”

The shifting political winds have heartened the hawkish groups who watched the GOP’s isolationist turn—and Paul’s rise—with alarm. “Rand and his acolytes hoped that if we left the world alone, the world would leave us alone. But experience is a cruel teacher, and beheadings and Iranian nukes focus the mind,” says Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel. “To their credit, many of the conservatives who flirted with the Rand and Obama foreign policy are changing their minds after seeing what happens when America withdraws from the world.”

The view was a popular one at an event that is a revealing—if imperfect—glimpse of the GOP’s current zeitgeist. “National security issues must be at the center of the 2016 presidential debate,” former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton declared onstage, and it seemed few of his potential rivals for the nomination disagreed.

Fiorina blistered Obama and Clinton for dithering: “While you seek moral equivalence,” she said, “the world waits for moral clarity and American leadership.” Walker, who has risen in the early primary polls by positioning himself as a conservative fighter, suggested he would take an aggressive stance on foreign policy. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” Walker said. (A spokeswoman for Walker’s political-action committee later clarified that the governor was “in no way comparing any American citizen to ISIS.”)

But it was Paul, who was most notable for having freshened his message. Back in 2011, he came to CPAC to call for cuts in military spending. “If you refuse to acknowledge that there’s any waste can be culled from the military budget, you are a big-government conservative and can you not lay claim to balancing the budget,” he said. This year he claimed “a foreign policy that encourages stability, not chaos.” His many fans here say they still believe his more restrained approach will bear political fruit. Daniel Jenkins, a 28-year old Iraq veteran and Paul supporter at Charlotte School of Law, says the senator’s foreign policy will have broad appeal in the general election. “It may not be the strongest point here among these conservatives,” Jenkins says, “but I think with Independents and in the big picture, it’ll catch on.”

CPAC is still Paul’s crowd, rippling with the young libertarians who form a cornerstone of his base. And the two-time defending champ of CPAC’s symbolic straw poll is likely to make it a three-peat when the event wraps up Saturday evening. But the annual confab has also signaled the challenges that lie ahead for the Kentucky Republican.

With reporting by Sam Frizell

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TIME 2016 Election

Four Things to Watch for at CPAC This Year

CPAC Mark Peterson Candidates
Mark Peterson—Redux for TIME A reporters asks CPAC attendees to pick their favorite candidate, in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 26, 2015.

The annual confab offers a good look at the grassroots zeitgeist

The conservative grassroots will gather by the thousands just outside of Washington, D.C., on Thursday for the annual ritual known as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Part political rally, part marketing bonanza and part youth bacchanal, the event is one of the few in which the far-flung factions of the party come together for a three-day blitz of speeches, panels and policy sessions.

For movement outsiders and American voters, the conference offers a compressed glimpse of the conservative zeitgeist, and a platform for the party’s presidential candidates to rouse the faithful in the coming campaign. Here are four story lines to watch as the event kicks off:

How will Chris Christie and Jeb Bush be received?
The party’s two establishment-backed candidates have been warmly received at CPAC before, but the knives may come out now that their all-but-certain presidential campaigns have attracted the money and muscle of the Acela corridor elites that the grassroots distrusts.

Both candidates will be interviewed by conservative broadcast personalities — Bush by Fox News’ Sean Hannity, and Christie by radio host Laura Ingraham. Bush is out to show that the “moderate” moniker he’s been tagged with by opponents is inaccurate, and will try to steer the conversation to the conservative record he compiled as the two-term governor of Florida. Christie, meanwhile, will have to defuse questions over his temperament while addressing his complicated fiscal record in his state.

How has the media onslaught affected Scott Walker?
In recent weeks, the Wisconsin governor has been embroiled in a controversy over President Obama’s patriotism and faith, but the media-driven debate may only have bolstered his standing with the conservative grassroots. Walker’s well-received speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January propelled him to the top of the (largely meaningless) early primary polls. Can he summon the same magic far from the heartland? Another strong showing would help shore up Walker’s support as he battles establishment competitors in the race to vacuum up the party’s top bundlers and operatives. A weak showing would reinforce the emerging narrative that the Wisconsinite may not be ready for gauntlet of a national campaign.

Where is the party on foreign policy?
The GOP’s isolationist and neocon wings will share the same stage this weekend, as Congress debates a war resolution against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) as well as President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. A public spat between the White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before his visit to Capitol Hill next week is likely to be a topic that plenty of speakers touch upon.

Who will win the straw poll?
The conference is capped by a candidate straw poll, which for two years running has been captured by Kentucky Senator and presumptive presidential candidate Rand Paul, who tends to play well among younger activists. The results have never augured much, given that candidates can stack the halls with their supporters by hawking discount tickets (which are required to vote) and swag giveaways. But even if imperfect, it’s still a measure for gauging who’s rallying the right.

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