Visits to key primary states like Iowa suggest Cruz has an eye on 2016.
Charlie Neibergall—AP
August 19, 2013 12:01 AM EDT

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Ted Cruz is sure I am out to get him. He has been enduring this interview for an hour in a New Orleans hotel suite with sweeping views of the barges churning up the Mississippi River 29 stories below. Not until the end does he hint the whole thing is just theater, its outcome as certain as a show vote in the Senate. Questions were asked; answers were given. But now, Cruz suggests, he will be reduced to caricature in the pages of TIME.

“There is a tendency to describe conservatives as one of two things: stupid or evil,” says the freshman Senator from Texas, leaning back against the patterned sofa, a black ostrich-skin boot resting on his knee. “A conservative is either stupid–too dumb to know the right answers. Or even worse, if they actually know the right answer, then they’re evil.”

Cruz has been called worse. Seven months into his Senate career, he has won a reputation as the chamber’s biggest troublemaker. Liberal pundits have called him a “political terrorist” and a “Taliban” extremist. To Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, he is a “schoolyard bully.” Republican John McCain christened him a “wacko bird.” And those epithets are mild compared with those muttered by colleagues from both parties behind closed doors.

But to movement conservatives around the country, Rafael Edward Cruz, 42, is something different: the Platonic ideal of a Tea Party legislator and just maybe the man to lead the GOP out of the Obama era. It’s not only that Cruz is good on God and guns. Or that he’s blessed with a bootstrap tale, Hispanic heritage and rhetorical gifts that complicate every liberal story line about conservatives being rich or racist or dumb. It’s also the fact that his slashing attacks on Republicans and Democrats alike shatter custom in the clubby Senate, where tradition dictates that members describe even colleagues they despise as “my friend.”

As a result, Cruz’s growing profile and his ascent in the early 2016 presidential polls worry Republican consultants, who took Barack Obama’s near sweep of swing states in 2012 as a sign the party needs to tack back toward the center to recapture the evolving American electorate. At a moment when others in the GOP are urging compromise, the Texan has bet big on combat. He helped lead the fight against expanded background checks on gun sales, joined Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster against Obama’s drone policy and fought against Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s push for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Now he is launching a new crusade to defund the President’s health care law, raising the specter of a government shutdown that spooks Republicans more than Democrats. “Don’t blink,” Cruz tells the crowds.

But if calling out the “squishes” in the Republican “surrender caucus” has made him a pariah in Washington, that is more by design than accident. “Every time Establishment Senators and Washington insiders scold him, it’s a payday,” says Dave Carney, a veteran GOP strategist. “He thrives on the fact that insiders are saying this is not the way that it’s done. For the last 40 years, the way it’s been done sucks.”

Political Prodigy

From the beginning, it was clear Cruz was a little different. He was raised in Houston, the product of an Irish-Italian mother from Delaware and a Cuban father who fled the Batista dictatorship in 1957, arrived in Austin with $100 sewn into his underwear and washed dishes for 50¢ an hour to put himself through college. In 1984, when Ted was 13, his parents enrolled him in an after-school program that extolled the virtues of free-market economics. He learned to memorize the Constitution with a mnemonic device and joined a performance troupe that toured the area, wowing audiences by scrawling its text on easels.

At Princeton, Cruz became the top-ranked debater in the U.S. “He’d keep me up into the early-morning hours, working out what we could have done better,” says his debate partner, David Panton. “And that was when we won.” In a twist so fitting it sounds apocryphal, one rare loss came when he was forced to argue against the proposition that the U.S. was the greatest nation in the history of the world. When Cruz turned in his senior thesis, an interpretation of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, his adviser, conservative scholar Robert George, felt moved to scribble a C-plus on the paper’s cover to impart a fleeting sensation of failure. “When you folded back the corner of the page,” George recalls, it revealed the A. “It was a mean thing to do, but Ted was the kind of student who had never gotten below an A-minus in his life.”

Cruz went to Harvard Law School, clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist at the Supreme Court and advised George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign on legal issues before becoming solicitor general of Texas. Despite the glittering résumé, he was a rounding error in the polls when he jumped into the 2012 Texas Senate race. The prohibitive front runner was Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican with a deep war chest and the backing of the Lone Star State political machine.

But as Cruz worked his way through the state, he won the attention of fundraising networks like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth. “He was being told everywhere he went that he had no chance to win,” says Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, a former Senator who gave Cruz an early endorsement. It was the most expensive Senate primary of 2012, and Cruz was outspent about 3 to 1. He won by 14 points.

In another era, Cruz might have seen the Senate as a platform to write laws and forge alliances. Instead he views it as a “battlefield.” He announced his arrival with a bruising cross-examination of fellow Republican Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee for Defense Secretary. Cruz demanded additional financial disclosures from the former Senator, suggesting Hagel had earned honorariums from hostile foreign powers. The performance led Democrats to liken Cruz–who in 2010 gave a speech declaring there were a dozen communists on the Harvard Law faculty–to Joe McCarthy.

During the gun-control debate, Cruz was among a handful of Republicans who threatened to filibuster any legislation that curbed Second Amendment rights. Despite his father’s immigrant story, he was a staunch opponent of the bipartisan Senate effort to reform U.S. immigration policy, arguing it would fail to secure the border and would reward lawbreakers. He also crossed the aisle to back Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s push to overhaul the military’s system for prosecuting cases of sexual assault.

Cruz’s latest crusade is stirring Senate furies once more. By Sept. 30, Congress must pass a so-called continuing resolution to keep the government funded. Republicans, he argues, should block a vote on the measure unless it prohibits the use of federal money for Obamacare, the latest in a series of efforts to gut the law. “If we can actually get Republicans to stand up and fight,” Cruz explained to reporters and conservative activists over Chick-fil-A sandwiches at a recent meeting on Capitol Hill, “I believe we can win this fight.”

Many Republicans, including much of the House leadership and many of his colleagues in the Senate, worry that Cruz’s brinkmanship will only spark a government shutdown, for which the GOP would likely shoulder the blame. “Totally unrealistic,” Senator Susan Collins of Maine says of the idea. North Carolina Republican Richard Burr dubbed it “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

While his Senate colleagues fume, Cruz is crisscrossing the country, dropping in on pastors’ conclaves in Iowa and Republican dinners in South Carolina. He is climbing the 2016 polls, even capturing one national straw vote. Legal scholars believe he is eligible for the presidency despite being born in Canada, where he lived until age 4. “The most recent parallel to Cruz may be [Barry] Goldwater, who also terrified the party establishment,” says Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker. That’s not necessarily an endorsement. As the party’s nominee in 1964, the archconservative Goldwater carried just six states.

Cruz prefers the comparison to Obama: two Harvard Law grads with compelling biographies yet diametrically opposed philosophies of government. “I think Barack Obama is an extraordinary politician,” he says, tacking on the usual caveat about how Obama is running the U.S. into the ground. Cruz admired Obama’s 2008 campaign so much, he gave copies of Obama strategist David Plouffe’s book, The Audacity to Win, as Christmas gifts to his aides. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” Obama used to say. Cruz flatters supporters in a similar manner. “I can’t win this fight,” he tells crowds of the struggle to stop Obamacare. “There is no elected politician in Washington who can win this fight. The only people who can win this fight are you.”

Higher Ambitions

Like Obama, Cruz is a dynamite speaker. Unlike the President, he shuns a teleprompter. Possessed of what friends say is a photographic memory, Cruz paces the stage, condemning Big Government with a preacher’s cadence and a syrupy drawl. At a gathering of conservative activists held in a New Orleans ballroom adorned with paintings of the Constitution’s framers, he won a standing ovation just for walking into the room, then got mobbed after delivering a stem-winder that compared congressional Republicans to hostage victims suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

Cruz has argued nine times before the Supreme Court, and he keeps a painting of his first loss before the Justices on the wall of his office to instill “humility,” he told ABC News. In conversation he is genial and polished. He chooses his words carefully, often pausing before laying out an argument in shapely, numbered paragraphs. At the same time, he can struggle to suppress the impulse to prove he is the smartest guy in the room. If faced with the presidential beer test, he might lecture you about the hops.

As for policy, Cruz wants to downsize Washington, abolish the IRS and TSA, shutter the Departments of Commerce, Education and Energy and privatize Social Security, which he has called a “Ponzi scheme,” a phrase that helped torpedo Texas Governor Rick Perry’s presidential hopes in 2012. He has claimed that liberal financier George Soros was behind an international plot to extend “the tentacles of the United Nations” into American government, abolish private property and eliminate golf courses.

Cruz notes with a mix of pride and frustration that the media seems to have invented a third label for his brand of conservatism: not stupid or evil but potentially “crazy.” I ask which of the three adjectives he would prefer to be used in this article. Cruz laughs and rules his reply off the record. One suspects each would be a badge of distinction in a game where attention can be everything.

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Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com.

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