Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who hasn’t shied away from angering the more traditional wing of his Republican Party, drew another rebuke from a political veteran: Bob Dole, a former Senate leader and presidential contender.
Cruz, a Tea Party favorite, in a speech to party activists this week pointed to the failed Republican presidential campaigns of Dole in 1996, Senator John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in 2012 as examples not to be followed in the 2016 race.
“Those are good men, they’re decent men, but when you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate,” Cruz said March 6 at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he was among a number of potential White House contenders who spoke.
“Senator Cruz needs to check the record before passing judgment,” Dole, 90, shot back in a statement yesterday. “I was one of President Reagan’s strongest supporters, and my record is that of a traditional Republican conservative.”
McCain, 77, told NBC News that while he and Romney can take the criticism, Cruz “crossed a line” by including Dole.
“When he throws Bob Dole in there, I wonder if he thinks that Bob Dole stood for principle on a hilltop in Italy when he was so gravely wounded and left part of his body there fighting for our country,” McCain, of Arizona, said of his former Senate colleague, a World War II Army veteran.
McCain, a U.S. Naval pilot, was severely injured in the Vietnam War when his plane was shot down. He spent more than five years as a prisoner of war.
A spokeswoman for Cruz, responding to the criticism, said “the senator greatly respects these men, particularly the heroic military service” of Dole and McCain.
Still, Cruz “will not hesitate to talk about substantive matters of conservative principles that are important to bringing Republicans to victory –- even if others may disagree,” Catherine Frazier said in an e-mailed statement.
The incident is the latest in which Cruz, 43, has crossed members of his party. He infuriated some Senate colleagues with his tactics in recent months, including a move to force fellow Republicans to take a politically risky vote on lifting the federal government’s borrowing limit.
The Cruz-Dole flap came as the wide-open, potentially divisive nature of the Republican race for the 2016 presidential nomination was on display at the conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, which ends today.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who drew the largest crowd of any of the potential candidates appearing at the three-day CPAC event, said in his speech yesterday that “lovers of liberty” can’t always walk in step with the Republican Party.
“It isn’t good enough to pick the lesser of two evils,” he said. “We must elect men and women of principle and conviction and action who will lead us back to greatness.”
Other possible contenders who spoke included former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee.
Paul, 51, another favorite of Tea Party activists, has bucked party orthodoxy while mulling a White House bid. He’s trying to build on the network of supporters his father, former U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, amassed during his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, while arguing that Republicans need to do more to reach out to blacks and other demographic groups that have traditionally shied away from the party.
Freedoms are under assault by the U.S. government, and fights must be waged to protect the less powerful, Paul said.
“You can be a minority by the color of your skin, or the shade of your ideology,” he said.
Without naming him, Santorum yesterday offered a rebuttal of Christie, who argued in his March 6 speech to the conference that Republicans must focus on figuring out ways to win elections rather than ideological purity.
“They actually mean we have to lose,” Santorum said of such arguments. “We have to lose those currently unfashionable stances on cultural and limited-government issues that have been proven over time to give Americans the best chance for a healthy, happy life.”
Hinting that he may make a second presidential bid, Santorum reminded his audience he won 11 states in his unsuccessful 2012 campaign.
“That’s more states than any second-place finisher since a guy who finished second back in 1976 named Reagan,” he said.
Perry, another failed 2012 presidential aspirant, in his address yesterday placed a heavy emphasis on limited government.
“Our country is in peril, our debt is at a record amount, this economic recovery is absolutely stagnant, our place in the world is weakened,” he said. “So I have a simple solution: It’s time for a little rebellion on the battlefield of ideas.”
He defined the national debate as a battle between the “big government, protectionist ’nanny’ state” and “the limited-government, unsubsidized freedom state.”
Perry, 64, failed badly in his White House run that’s remembered in part for his disparaging comments about then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and debate performances even he rated as subpar.
Still, he received some of the strongest applause among the potential 2016 candidates at the CPAC gathering that is sponsored by the American Conservative Union, a Washington-based group that promotes smaller government.
The common wisdom in presidential politics has been that Democrats tend to fall in love with newcomers to the national stage, while Republicans fall in line behind seasoned contenders. That could get reversed in 2016 if Hillary Clinton enters the Democratic race, with polls showing she’d be the strong favorite for her party’s nod.
Republicans, by contrast, don’t yet have the type of clear front-runner that has marked most of their races over the last 50 years.
Huckabee in his address yesterday criticized comments Clinton made when she testified before Congress about her role as secretary of state during the 2012 terrorist attack in Libya that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador to that country.
In the hearings, Republicans pressed her on incorrect talking points the Obama administration initially used to characterize the attack, prompting her to ask, “What difference does it make” whether it was a planned terrorist operation or a spontaneous incident.
“With all due respect to Hillary Clinton, it does make a difference why they died,” said Huckabee, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
After winning that year’s Iowa caucuses, Huckabee, 58, saw his campaign fizzle. He went on to become the host of a radio talk show and a Fox News program.