Class presidents.

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Cruz and Rubio Try Too Hard

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, the two candidates who are putting up the biggest fight against Donald Trump's surprise surge in Iowa, aren't supposed to have much in common. One is a hard-line right-wing maverick with a gift for alienating people; the other is an apple-polishing establishment candidate. Yet there's something they share: An inability to get people to raise their posters in the air.

According to an Iowa State University/WHO-HD poll released last Wednesday, Cruz was the front-runner among prospective Iowa caucus-goers. Trump was second, and Rubio claimed fourth place with effectively as much support as Ben Carson in third place. I saw both Rubio and Cruz in action on Monday and Tuesday, and I came away doubting that either of them could be a big winner, even if they do well in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.

I heard Rubio at a Des Moines auditorium, where about 200 people gathered to see him. His Iowa campaign is sedate compared with those of most of his major rivals. Before he came onstage, his campaign staff went around offering Rubio signs to the audience, careful not to distribute any in the middle so as not to obscure the senator from the TV cameras. They had trouble finding takers. There were some placards left over when they were done, though some people reconsidered and took them, probably to spare the volunteers some embarrassment.

Then Rubio gave his speech, and not a single one of these signs went up in the air, though the audience applauded politely. 

Cruz's Iowa blitz is nothing like Rubio's. It's a mad, all-or-nothing dash through the state's small towns, backed by a flurry of TV and radio ads. I caught up with Cruz in a barn in Osceola. It was freezing inside, and about 30 people -- and almost as many reporters -- sat on bales of hay and rickety benches, their breath visible as they talked quietly, expecting the candidate's bus to roll up. This was the first of seven such stops scheduled for Tuesday.

When volunteers came in carrying "TrusTed" posters, hands reached out for them: These were big fans of Cruz. Yet I didn't see a single sign go up as he made his impassioned speech about the battles he has fought for the conservative cause.

Both Rubio and Cruz are accomplished public speakers, talking in punchy, forceful, rounded sentences, making their case clearly and passionately. They speak as lawyers would, playing to a full courtroom, grabbing attention from the first second and never letting up; that's what they are, of course -- lawyers.

On the campaign trail, their talking points sound similar, too: conservative staples such as religion, the condemnation of gay marriage and abortions, an assertive foreign policy, tighter regulation of immigration, no to the Common Core curriculum, support for the Second Amendment. Both promise to rescind President Barack Obama's executive orders on their first day in office, and get a big hand for that. Both slam Democrats for building up a big, intrusive, incompetent government.

The differences are mostly those of style. Rubio is earnest, humorless, prone to long stories about his poor childhood in an immigrant neighborhood and his gratitude toward the country that gave his family a home and him a chance at a bright political future. Cruz is full of malicious fun. "They had a blizzard in Washington, closed down the government," he said, grinning in that freezing barn. "Praise the Lord," came a voice from the back of the room, and everyone, including the candidate, laughed. "It was so cold I actually saw a Democrat with his hands in his own pockets," Cruz continued.

Where Rubio sounds idealistic, selling a bright future for an exceptionalist America, Cruz is all about a war for the conservative values he says are being eroded, a crusade in which every day counts, everyone is a soldier, and the biggest question is, "Where were you when the battle was fought?"

Though their backers agree with them on the values and the vision, they fail to show the enthusiasm I have seen for other candidates -- Trump, Bernie Sanders and even, to an extent, Hillary Clinton. And I can see why.

Neither Rubio nor Cruz projects power and independence the way those three do. 

Rubio admitted early on that he used proceeds from his memoir, "The American Son" ("Now available in paperback," he said), to help pay off $100,000 in student debt. That somewhat devalued his stories of a poor childhood: This method of debt reduction can hardly resonate with most young professionals, even if they haven't heard of the questions that have dogged Rubio since he received an $800,000 advance for the book.

Cruz sounded so stringent, forbidding and lawyerly, despite his attempts at down-to-earth humor, that one couldn't completely disregard Trump's criticism of the Texas senator as "a nasty guy" whom nobody likes. Add to that the ubiquitous attack ads about him that mention his wife's work for Goldman Sachs and the loan he received from the bank to fund his Senate campaign.

Unlike Trump, Cruz and Rubio may be true conservatives. But also unlike the rule-breaking billionaire, they don't come off as people who can afford to do and say anything they please -- an ability that lends Trump his powerful crowd appeal. They try too hard, and they fail to connect on a human level.

Though both appear poised to post strong results in Iowa -- with Cruz perhaps winning the state's nomination -- they don't appear to be the kind of candidates who can carry the Republicans to a nationwide win. In his speech in the barn, Cruz wistfully recalled Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory, against all the odds and the establishment's wishes. But without Reagan's easy charm, he isn't likely destined to repeat that history. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net