After standout performances in Colorado, candidates see rise in donations and poll standings
The presidential candidates who gained the most traction from the latest Republican debate are a pair of 44-year-old Cuban-Americans who are first-term U.S. senators.
There the similarity ends, and their differences point to the stark choice that Republican primary voters face about the direction of their party.
Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas have both seen a surge in media attention, donations and poll standings since last month’s debate in Colorado. But they appeal to very different wings of the GOP electorate, with Mr. Cruz rallying anti-Washington conservative forces and Mr. Rubio drawing strength from the party’s business-focused establishment wing.
In Tuesday’s fourth GOP debate, in Milwaukee, focusing on economic issues, the differences are likely to surface again.
Mr. Cruz rails against illegal immigrants; Mr. Rubio takes a more welcoming approach. Mr. Cruz opposed President Barack Obama’s fast-track trade bill; Mr. Rubio supported it. Mr. Cruz traffics in the highflying oratory of an evangelical minister’s son; Mr. Rubio’s brand of eloquence is more low-key.
Both senators still trail political novices Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who lead the GOP field. But should the front-runners falter, the Cruz-Rubio surge raises a surprising prospect: Two Cuban-Americans in the top tier among candidates in a party that has struggled to win support from Hispanics.
Mr. Cruz said in a recent CNN interview it was “plausible” that the primary would wind up a Rubio-Cruz face-off, citing a history of GOP contests that pitted a conservative against a more-centrist candidate. “I think Marco is certainly formidable,” Mr. Cruz said. But, he added, “once it gets down to a head-to-head contest between a conservative and a moderate…I think the conservative wins.”
A super PAC supporting Mr. Cruz last week ran an ad in Iowa that attacked Mr. Rubio for his record on immigration. “Marco Rubio looks good on TV, but that’s about it,” says the narrator of the ad from the pro-Cruz PAC, Courageous Conservatives.
That is different from the tone of a Senate debate in 2013, when Mr. Cruz, filibustering to block funding for the Affordable Care Act, praised his colleague. “I don’t know if there is anyone more effective, more articulate, or a more persuasive voice for conservative principles than my friend Marco Rubio,” Mr. Cruz said.
Mr. Rubio’s spokesman declined to comment.
Both senators were propelled to new prominence by signal moments in the Colorado debate. After Mr. Cruz attacked the CNBC moderators for what he said were biased questions, his campaign website drew so much traffic that it crashed. In the 22 hours following the debate, he raised $1.1 million.
Mr. Rubio’s moment came in his withering riposte to Mr. Bush, after the former Florida governor tried to scold him about his Senate attendance record. Just days later, Mr. Rubio picked up the coveted endorsement of GOP megadonor Paul Singer, a hedge-fund investor. He was also endorsed by three members of the Senate, an institution where Mr. Cruz has alienated many colleagues.
Their poll ratings also rose after the debate, and they consistently showed in third and fourth place behind Messrs. Carson and Trump.
The two candidates are colliding after following parallel paths to the Senate: Both were propelled to election wins—Mr. Rubio in 2010 and Mr. Cruz in 2012—after garnering tea-party support in primaries against establishment-backed candidates.They have similar immigrant-family roots, but they tell their stories to different ends in their campaigns, and have arrived at different conclusions on immigration policy.
Mr. Rubio, who speaks fluent Spanish, is the son of a bartender and maid who emigrated from Cuba in 1956. His life story is a cornerstone of his stump speech, and he tells it—sometimes in Spanish—in part to build appeal with Hispanic voters.
Mr. Rubio was an architect of the comprehensive 2013 immigration bill, which included a path to citizenship for millions of people in the U.S. illegally. He backed away from the bill when it died in the House. He now argues for a piecemeal approach to policy change. And he has hardened his position against the president’s executive order granting legal status for young, undocumented immigrants.
Mr. Cruz is a harsh critic of offering citizenship to illegal immigrants, which he calls “amnesty,” and focuses like a laser on securing the border. Javier Palomarez, head of the nonpartisan U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, sees that hard line as rooted in Mr. Cruz’s training in the law and constitutional conservative theory.
“He welcomes and celebrates legal immigration—but he will stop right there and not go one inch further,” said Mr. Palomarez, who has held a question-and-answer forum with Mr. Cruz and is awaiting one with Mr. Rubio.
Mr. Cruz doesn’t speak fluent Spanish, and he tells his family story less to connect with Hispanics than to appeal to evangelicals. His father, who left Cuba to escape the Batista regime, developed a drinking problem and left his son and wife; but he recovered when he found God, came home to his family and became an evangelical minister.
Mr. Rubio kept his distance from the tea-party movement after going to the Senate. For Mr. Cruz, by contrast, tea-party support is central to his presidential campaign.The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that Mr. Cruz was the first choice of 22% of tea-party voters; 9% picked Mr. Rubio.
The senators share a history of supporting free-trade policies. But Mr. Cruz, facing a backlash from conservative activists and media, this year switched positions and ended up voting against “fast track” legislation to expedite approval of trade deals. Mr. Rubio supported fast track. Mr. Cruz is “skeptical” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership; Mr. Rubio is inclined to support the deal, a priority of business groups.
Scott Reed, political analyst for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment on the GOP candidates but said, “The country is at a real fork in the road, and this is shaping up to be the most important election of our lifetime.”