TUPELO, Miss. — As Ted Cruz traipses through the South, his mentions of one Republican draw more derision than that of any Democrat, President Obama and presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton included.
During campaign stops Monday and Tuesday in Tennessee and Mississippi, Cruz's references to the former Florida governor, now a staple of the senator's stump speech, often elicited loud booing, sometimes accompanied by scattered shouts of "Establishment!" or "RINO!" (Republican In Name Only).
For months, the Republican Texas senator has been alluding to Bush as the archetypal moderate, insufficiently conservative and guaranteed to shut the GOP out of the White House for another four years if nominated. But in recent weeks, the Tea Party darling has become more explicit, naming Bush in interviews and other public appearances as a prime example of what's ailing the GOP.
"We're tired of losing," Cruz said Tuesday when asked why he thought Bush's name was drawing such strong reactions on the campaign trail.
No episode this summer has given Cruz more fodder against Bush than Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. Cruz has maintained that the agreement would make the United States the "leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism" — the kind of alarm sounding that has been rebuked by more moderate Republicans, including the former Florida governor.
"'Now, now, don't say those sorts of things. Don't be that candid about what can happen here,'" Cruz said Tuesday in Tupelo, Mississippi, impersonating Bush. "Let me give you all a real simple principle: The truth is not rhetoric."
Cruz's more direct shots at Bush have raised some charges that the senator is violating his cardinal rule — not to engage in what he calls "Republican-on-Republican violence." But Cruz and his campaign insist that promise applies more to personal attacks than policy differences. And on that latter topic, Cruz could not be happier to highlight two areas where Bush is seen as most crosswise with the GOP base.
In an interview aboard his campaign bus Tuesday in Mississippi, Cruz praised Bush's "candor" in a seemingly backhanded compliment.
"He has been quite candid in embracing amnesty, in embracing Common Core," Cruz said. "Now those policy positions are dramatically out of step with Republican primary voters, but I have commended his courage of convictions that he sticks with his defense of amnesty and his defense of Common Core.”
Asked after the first GOP presidential debate about Cruz's criticism of the former Florida governor, U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Bush backer, balked at the notion that Bush would amount to another Mitt Romney if nominated.
"He was a conservative governor with a conservative record," the North Carolina congressman said, nodding to Bush's gubernatorial experience with tax cuts, anti-abortion measures and school choice. "He won't make the mistakes Romney made in the last election and will be able to break through with a wider population."
That suggestion drew somewhat of a chuckle from Cruz on Tuesday. In the interview, Cruz was nonetheless quick to note his longtime respect for the Bushes, crediting the family with a "remarkable legacy of public service." As usual, he also did not pass up the opportunity to note that in his 2012 run for U.S. Senate he received support from Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, a friend and Jeb Bush's son.
The interview came during Cruz's weeklong swing through the so-called "SEC primary" states, several places scheduled to hold their presidential primaries on March 1, 2016.
After watching the senator rally supporters in the parking lot of a fried chicken restaurant in Tupelo, Cruz supporter Mike Sauvageot said Bush and other more moderate candidates probably would have a harder time catching fire in his corner of the state.
"They're looked at more as Washington insiders, Sauvageot said, "and I think people are tired of that, really."
Cruz sparked a rowdy reception in Tupelo, and if Bush were to follow him to town, Sauvageot added, "I don't think he'd get the same kind of reaction."