SIOUX CITY, Iowa — The presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is fiercely guarding its libertarian base against GOP rival Ted Cruz, producing the harshest pushback yet to the Texan's efforts to consolidate conservative support in his own bid for the White House.
As the two candidates crisscrossed this key presidential proving ground Monday, the rift remained on full display, with Paul's campaign all but suggesting Cruz's team was trying to buy the support of libertarian voters. Paul has a long history with the liberty movement, a campaign spokesman said, and "no amount in any bank account can change that."
Cruz, Texas' junior U.S. senator, has not been shy about his intent to compete for libertarian voters, one of four brackets of support through which his campaign views the Republican primary electorate. So far, that endeavor has not put Cruz in open conflict with a Republican opponent the way it has with Paul, whose campaign laid bare its disdain for the Texan as soon as results were announced Saturday for a straw poll at a national meeting of the Republican Liberty Caucus.
The poll, a preference test in which participants list all candidates they could support, found Paul in first place with 445 votes to 399 for Cruz.
"Ted Cruz came, Ted Cruz saw, Ted Cruz was conquered," the Paul spokesman, Sergio Gor, said in a statement that accused Cruz's campaign of bussing in supporters, a charge it denies. The Texan's team had its own take on the outcome, calling it a "major upset among libertarian voters" in which Cruz trailed Paul by "just a few points": 51 percent to 57 percent.
The dust-up over Cruz's effort to make inroads with the liberty movement has been one of the more revealing episodes in a primary Cruz seems to be constantly thinking about through the prism of four GOP constituencies: moderates, members of the Tea Party, evangelicals and libertarians. Speaking with reporters Monday in Sioux City, Iowa, Cruz sidestepped a question about the Paul campaign's pushback to highlight the ideological "breadth" shown by his first-place finishes in two other recent straw polls, one conducted by FreedomWorks and the other at the Value Voters Summit.
"If you look at those two contingents, FreedomWorks tends to be more libertarian and Tea Party. Value Voters tends to be more evangelical and socially conservative," Cruz told reporters, calling the dual wins a "snapshot" of his support across the GOP spectrum.
The point is not lost on Cruz's liberty-minded supporters. "He seems to be able to transcend the different factions of the conservative movement," said Iowa state Sen. Jason Schultz, who explained that he has admired Paul for years but believes the Kentuckian has slipped in his appeal specifically to Christian libertarians.
Schultz is one of about two dozen so-called "Liberty Leaders," many of them former supporters of Paul's father, libertarian icon Ron Paul, that the Cruz campaign has recruited in the first three early voting states. Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party's nominee for president in 2008, is chairing the coalition.
"He's really picked up the mantle of Ron Paul in many ways," Joel Kurtinitis, the regional director of Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign, said in a video introducing the coalition.
When Cruz's campaign rolled out the group of libertarian backers last month, Rand Paul aides argued the Texan's team was essentially "repackaging" a number of previously announced endorsements. Kurtinitis and Schultz, for example, were named to Cruz's Iowa leadership team in April.
"The truth of the matter is the overwhelming majority of the liberty folks are with Rand Paul," said Steve Munisteri, a senior adviser to the Kentuckian and former chairman of the Texas GOP. "I think [Cruz] tried to create the illusion that there's some defection of liberty voters."
More recently, the Paul campaign's pushback involves a critique that Cruz is not exactly used to: He is well funded. The Texan has proven to not only be a stronger-than-expected fundraiser but also a vocal one, boasting of his campaign's overflowing coffers in stump speeches.
Cruz's campaign says it raised $12.2 million in the third quarter, or almost five times as much as Paul's haul, a relatively meager take that did little to curb speculation he was on the verge of dropping out of the race. Seeking to show momentum, the Cruz campaign volunteered Monday that it had already taken in more than $1 million in the fourth quarter, which began Oct. 1.
Gor, the Paul spokesman, dismissed Cruz's fundraising advantage in a statement Monday: "We appreciate senator Cruz's new interest in Liberty minded voters. But the fact is Rand Paul has been steadfast and consistent in his defense of the constitution and the limited role of government. No amount in any bank account can change that."
Added Munisteri: "They have more staff, they have more money." At the Republican Liberty Caucus meeting, Cruz aides thought they "could go in there and buy liberty caucus votes."
Among liberty activists, there does not appear to be much of an appetite for a brawl between the two hopefuls, who largely are ideological allies with a friendly history. (In his 2012 campaign for Senate, Cruz had the backing of both Rand and Ron Paul.) The rift has extended to Cruz's efficacy in the Senate, where Paul recently suggested his colleague is "pretty much done for" as a result of his sharp criticism of GOP leadership; Cruz responded by flagging Paul's closeness to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentucky Republican whom Cruz called a liar during a remarkable floor speech in July.
Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based Republican strategist with ties to the liberty movement, said many of its members started the presidential race with "Rand No. 1, Cruz No.2" but genuinely like them both and still want to see where the race goes. "Certainly their rivalry has grown in time," Steinhauser added, "and they're both competing hard for the same people."