Ted Cruz: Leader of the Republican Party?

If there was a star at Friday morning's session of the 2012 Values Voter Summit, it was Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Cruz was the person that fired up the audience with a speaking style that mimics an evangelical preacher. Cruz was the speaker who - to the delight of the audience - refused to be ruffled by the several immigration-reform activists who heckled him during his speech. And Cruz was the one that Family Research Council President Tony Perkins called "a de facto leader of the Republican Party" in an interview with CNN.

A freshman senator, Cruz's profile has risen fast because of his dual abilities to excite the base and rankle his colleagues in the Senate. Most recently, he was responsible for leading the Republican Party down the path of shutting down the government in an attempt to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act - a path, he said today, that is driven by the American people.

"It is because of you that the House of Representatives has been standing strong, because the House has been listening to the people. It is because of you that for the past two months the country ahs engaged in an national debate about the enormous harms Obamacare is causing...it is because of you that the American people are energized and we see the Obama administration defending positions that are utterly and completely unreasonable," Cruz said.

The vision Cruz painted of the House of Representatives fighting to represent the will of the American people doesn't gel with recent polls that show the party's public opinion taking a serious hit.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that by a 22-point margin - 53 percent to 31 percent - the Republican Party is seen by the public as being more responsible for the shutdown than President Obama. That's a bigger difference than the blame apportioned between the Republican Congress and President Clinton during the last shutdown. Additionally, public opinion of both the GOP and the tea party are at an all-time low: 24 percent have a favorable opinion of the GOP, and 21 percent have a favorable opinion of the tea party.

True, the hit at the polls could be temporary. Former Rep. Bob Walker, R-Pa., who was serving in the House during the 1995-1996 shutdown,told CBS News, "If you look back at 17 years ago we took a lot of immediate heat too but if you looked out two months the polls for the Republicans had actually increased and the polls for the president had stayed about the same," he said. "So the idea that somehow the idea that the Republicans took a huge hit 17 years ago is just kind of a misnomer."

Cruz himself isn't doing very well outside the base of the Republican Party. Only 14 percent of those surveyed had a positive opinion of Cruz; 28 percent had a negative opinion (44 percent didn't even know his name or weren't sure of what they thought of him). President Obama, by comparison, fared the best of the leaders surveyed in the poll with a 47 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable rating.

Gallup found that the shutdown showdown has raised his public profile - 62 percent of Americans they surveyed said they had an opinion of Cruz, versus just 42 percent in June. But as his recognition has gone up, public opinion has gone down: his unfavorable rating doubled from 18 percent in June to 36 percent today, while his favorable rating was virtually unchanged.

The government shutdown and fight over the debt limit has laid bare divisions within the Republican Party, which were on full display at the Values Voter Summit. More moderate politicians like Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., were not invited. At one point, Brent Bozell, founder and president of the Media Research Center, delivered a blistering critique of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. - his party's nominee in 2008 -- as an intellectually dishonest "faux conservative."

"Ted has tapped deeply into a vein in the republican body politic, but it's not the entire body. It's an important vein. And what he's doing that's remarkably and troublingly different from what Ronald Reagan did is his approach is to split and divide. Ronald Reagan's approach was to grow and multiply," said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for former President George W. Bush. "To be successful you need to grow the party, multiply the party, and be a conservative as a result," he said.

But Fleischer also noted that the Republican Party has long been modeled a three-legged stool built on the support of defense hawks, economic conservatives and social conservatives. Disparate factions always find a way to come together, and he predicted that would ultimately be the case here as well.

"If you're talking about a real meaningful historic split within one of the two parties, that's not the case. There's tension right now. But I think there's a tendency of a lot of people to overwrite the story, especially when we're in the middle of issue," he said.

The stars of the morning session were Cruz's conservative club in the Senate. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, spoke first, urging conservatives to come up with a new "reform agenda" that focused on trimming government, promoting family values and upward economic mobility. After Cruz's speech - a condemnation of Mr. Obama, mostly - Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., delivered a 20-minute warning about the pervasive influence of radical Islam, especially in the context of what he views as a global war on Christianity. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., rounded out the group with a condemnation of the "rising tide of intolerance in America" against people who hold traditional values. His biggest applause line: "In America you have the right to worship everywhere you choose...you have a right to not believe in God at all. But I believe Jesus Christ is God."

But Cruz was the star of the show as he handily dispatched the protesters who yelled questions at Cruz about his stance on immigration (the activists are part of two pro-immigration reform groups). The Texas senator assumed they were supporters of the president, and joked to the rest of the crowd, "I'm actually glad that the president's whole political staff is here instead of doing mischief in the country!"

Afterward, the four left to take part in a meeting at the White House with their fellow Senate Republicans. Some, like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, will present the president with compromise plans to reopen the government. The plan doesn't defund or delay the health care law, so it will be unlikely to get support from Cruz and his allies. That may not be good for the long-term health of the party, but as long as the base keeps cheering them on, their approach is unlikely to change.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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