After two-and-a-half months on the job, Ted Cruz capped a blistering start to his Senate career Saturday with the closing keynote address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, securing his place as a rising star of the Republican right.
Cruz told the largest annual gathering of conservative activists that from Sen. Rand Paul's recent filibuster on drones, in which he served as the Kentucky Republican's wing man, to the sequestration fight, "we are winning in Washington" and that this is no time for defeatism.
Espousing a gospel of pro-growth "opportunity conservatism," Cruz said, "The focus of every policy should be on easing the means of ascent. People hurting the most are young people, African-Americans, single moms who are finding their opportunities shut to reach the American dream."
It was time, he said, to eliminate corporate welfare, build the Keystone XL pipeline, abolish the federal Department of Education, embrace school choice and rein in the Environmental Protection Agency, citing what he called its effort to "shut down oil and gas production" in West Texas because of an endangered lizard.
"You know my feelings about lizards -- they make durn fine boots," Cruz said.
Cruz roused the crowd to its feet, reciting a litany of causes -- guns, drones, spending, debt, the Constitution -- on which he asked, with rhetorical thunder, "Do we surrender, or do we stand up now?"
The prime speaking spot was recognition that Cruz has quickly emerged as the hottest ticket on the American right.
That, and the results of the CPAC presidential straw poll, released just before he spoke, made plain that it is now Cruz, not Gov. Rick Perry, who will likely be the focus of attention as the Texan most likely to be talked about as a potential candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
In balloting by about 3,000 of the attendees, Paul led with 25 percent, followed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio with 23 percent. Cruz had 4 percent, tied with neurosurgeon Ben Carson for seventh place, and ahead of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who rounded out the top 10 vote-getters with 3 percent each. None of the rest of the 23 candidates on the ballot -- including Perry -- reached the 1 percent threshold.
Perry, who once appeared poised to seize the Republican nomination last year, was relegated to a Thursday afternoon speaking slot. Perry was well-received, but he was a supporting player and not the star, and certainly not the rising star.
"Sen. Cruz solidified his place as a national leader in both the Republican Party and the conservative movement with his closing keynote of CPAC," said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, who divides his time between Austin and Washington and attended the three-day conference just outside Washington. "His future is getting brighter every day."
Cruz's speech was highly anticipated.
Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of RedState.com, who as much as anyone is the man who administers the litmus test for true-blue conservatism, said on Twitter, "Only speech I'm interested in at CPAC is that from ?@tedcruz. CPAC's good at closing with a conservative standard bearer to chart direction."
And Cruz's first months in office have been an unremitting advertisement for his ability to mix it up in the Senate, making enemies and friends in equal measure.
"Cruz has a real instinct for the news cycle and the camera, so he's going to be in the news, but I don't think he's going to be part of solving any problem in Washington, and I don't expect him to build a national following except in the tea party wing, which loves the flame-throwing, as opposed to working on issues," said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson.
But Phyllis Schlafly, at 88 the grand dame of conservative activism, effectively offered a rejoinder to Jillson in her speech, which followed Palin's, noting that if there are those "blaming Ted Cruz for voting 'no' on everything that comes up, well, good for him."
"We've needed someone who knows how to conduct an investigation, a hearing like Ted Cruz," Schlafly said just before delivering her speech. "We have never had a Republican who was as good as (New York Sen.) Chuck Schumer. And I think Ted Cruz can do that -- that's what we're looking for. We're tired of them just standing around doing nothing."
"Make hay while the sun shines," observed Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform and a conservative kingmaker, explaining that Cruz was wise to grab the spotlight and hold it for as long as he can.
"He gets here and he's not hundredth out of 100. He's one of 15 most noticed in the Senate out of 100," said Norquist, who said that Cruz could "coast for the next three months" and work on his golf game, secure that this striking first impression will last.
"He was fabulous," said Susan Clark, a painter who lives on Capitol Hill, saying that Cruz's speech met her expectations, "and beyond. He hit it out of the park."
Clark didn't vote in the straw poll -- which ended hours before Cruz spoke -- but if she had, she said she would have cast her ballot for Cruz.
If Cruz were to run for president, the question of his constitutional eligibility would come to the fore. But Cruz spokesman Sean Rushton has said the senator meets the constitutional requirement to serve as president.
"Sen. Cruz is a U.S. citizen by birth, having been born in Calgary to an American-born mother," Rushton said.
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