Ted Cruz was 10 years old when his hero, Ronald Reagan, became president in 1981. By his teen years, the son of a Cuban political refugee had memorized the U.S. Constitution and devoured economics classes at the Free Enterprise Institute in Houston.
His college adviser at Princeton University, jurisprudence professor Robert P. George, described him as "exceptionally bright, exceptionally poised and exceptionally articulate."
"What's not to like?" George said last week. "He has all the ingredients."
As Republicans prepare to gather this week for their national convention in Tampa, party leaders are betting that Cruz, now 41, has the ingredients to become one of the stars of a new generation of national GOP leaders, born in the final third of the 20th century, raised during Reagan's presidency and devoutly committed to the Gipper's dream of a smaller, less powerful federal government.
"I will go to my grave with Ronald Wilson Reagan defining what it means to be president of the United States," Cruz said in an interview.
Stepping into spotlight
Cruz, who shocked the Republican political establishment last month by upsetting Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a U.S. Senate primary runoff, soon will get a chance to step out of Reagan's shadow and into the contemporary political spotlight.
The former Texas solicitor general will have a coveted speaking spot at the 2012 convention, where he will articulate the political goals of the ascendant GOP generation in their early 40s, which also includes vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
"He is a rising star," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. "He is not just a smart, articulate advocate. There is some depth there and some lightness afoot (for him) to move from ambitious politician to darling of the tea party."
But Cruz's ideological zeal and intellectual intensity have drawn criticism from Democrats and liberals who view him as an inflexible ideologue.
"In some cases, he'll vote against the interests of Latinos," said Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. "I don't think many Latinos will vote for him."
Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa on Thursday included Cruz in his roster of "Republican crazies," comparing him to Tom Head, the GOP county judge in Lubbock who asked for a bigger budget because of a possible United Nations invasion of Texas if President Barack Obama wins re-election.
"Ted Cruz is clearly in good company," Hinojosa said.
But even some Democrats who view Cruz as a far-right conservative say the importance of his political ascent should not be underestimated.
"It would be difficult to overstate the significance of Cruz's primary election win," said Austin Democratic consultant Harold Cook, "not just because he won, but also because of how he did it."
Cook said any one of three accomplishments would have made Cruz a star beyond the Lone Star State: his tea party insurgency, his dramatic comeback to defeat a heavily favored veteran politician, and his potential role as the second young Latino Republican senator in Washington.
"All three factors combined make him into an immediate national figure if he wins in November," said Cook. "He'd be a Senate freshman like Hillary Clinton was a Senate freshman (in 2001)."
The symbolic value of Cruz's runoff win doesn't stop there. The Houston lawyer's victory over the 67-year-old lieutenant governor also marks a generational shift in the Texas GOP, and the 2012 Republican National Convention will showcase younger grass-roots comers at the expense of veterans of the George W. Bush and Rick Perry eras.
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak says that Cruz -- along with Attorney General Greg Abbott and George P. Bush, the 36-year-old nephew of George W. Bush -- "represent the next generation of Republicans in Texas. They are conservatives, they understand the grass roots, they understand social media and they can raise money."
For Cruz, the future is now, and he is polishing a speech, which will likely be pushed to Tuesday because of the threatening storm.
New conservative wave
Cruz's longtime friends say they know the message he'll deliver in Tampa. It's the same one he learned at Houston's Free Enterprise Institute and debated over beers with other young lawyers in George W. Bush's administration.
"Ted has devoted his career, if not his entire life, to defending the Constitution, promoting limited government, and fighting for the rule of law," said Dallas attorney James C. Ho, who has been a friend for 15 years and followed Cruz as Texas solicitor general.
Cruz says he plans to lay out the stark contrast between Obama's vision for America and the agenda of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"One (vision) is continuing down the path of more and more government spending and control over the economy and our lives," he said. "The second is returning to the constitutional foundations of our nation and the reliance on free markets and individual liberties. That is a choice with tremendous consequences."
Cruz doesn't give Obama credit for much -- but he does thank the president for inspiring a new wave of conservatives. "The most long-lasting legacy of Barack Obama is going to be a new generation of leaders in the Republican Party," Cruz predicted.
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