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Establishment attacks only make Cruz more popular with supporters

By Dana Bash and Rachel Streitfeld, CNN
February 21, 2013 -- Updated 1341 GMT (2141 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Freshman senator has irked colleagues by bucking tradition of starting quietly
  • Tea party-backed Texan has been accused of 'McCartyhism' over Hagel nomination
  • One GOP senator says in a place of healthy egos, Cruz stands out because of his
  • Supporters say Cruz is doing exactly what he was elected to do: Carry the message

Austin, Texas (CNN) -- By the time Republican Sen. Ted Cruz arrived for an event at a gun manufacturing business outside Austin, there was a healthy-sized, cheering crowd to greet him. One constituent even held a handmade sign saying, "Ted Cruz Rocks."

The scene had the look and feel of a campaign event. Except that the freshman senator isn't up for re-election for six years.

Instead, the Texans were there to applaud their senator's head-turning performance in Washington even though he's only been in office for a month.

In that short time, Cruz has made a name for himself, joining only two others to vote against John Kerry's nomination for secretary of state, aggressively defending gun rights in a high-profile gun violence hearing, and perhaps most notably trying to take down defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel.

Republicans still question Hagel nomination

Cruz stands out in a body where freshmen senators have traditionally been encouraged to start out being workhorses not show horses. But in an interview with CNN, he was unapologetic.

"At the end of the day I was elected to represent 26 million Texans and to speak the truth. You know, I think a lot of Americans are tired of politicians in Washington in both parties who play games," Cruz said.

The 42-year-old Cuban-American, the first Hispanic senator from Texas, studied free market principles and memorized the Constitution as a teenager, thanks to the encouragement his father, a Cuban refugee.

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He was a debate champion at Princeton and attended Harvard Law School, eventually becoming solicitor general of Texas, where he argued for states rights and religious freedom before the U.S. Supreme Court.

When the 2012 campaign season came around, he mounted a challenge from the right against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the GOP favorite to take the state's open Senate seat.

With the help of an intense grass roots effort from tea party groups, Cruz came from virtually nowhere to beat Dewhurst, which gave him a lock on the general election in the reliably Republican state.

Supporter: 'A great messenger for ideas'

"Ted Cruz is a different unique candidate and a different senator just because of the fact that he's the total package. He's brilliant, he's a great messenger for ideas, he's a true believer, and he's a guy that you never have to wonder about how he's going to vote. Ted Cruz is really the quintessential tea party candidate and tea party U.S. senator," said Brendan Steinhauser, a leading Texas tea party activist who worked to get Cruz elected.

Steinhauser says he and others like him could not be more pleased with Cruz, saying their time and effort in getting him elected is paying off.

But while conservatives who fueled Cruz's come from behind win are ecstatic that he's been so vocal so fast, senior members of the Senate hardly share that enthusiasm.

Cruz angered senators in both parties by demanding to know -- without evidence -- if $200,000 Hagel made from speeches came directly from Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

That earned him a public smackdown from Republican John McCain, R-Arizona, despite the fact that McCain, too, opposes Hagel's nomination.

"No one on this committee at any time should impugn his character or his integrity," McCain said of Hagel.

Democrats suggest Cruz is engaging in McCarthyism by maligning Hagel's character with unsubstantiated claims and questions.

Cruz makes waves with no apologies

"The attention that has focused on me in my opinion is actually primarily being driven by an effort to distract from the merits of the Hagel nomination," Cruz told CNN about those accusations.

In fact, when it comes to his controversial role in the Hagel nomination fight, Cruz is mounting a vigorous self-defense.

Although he had already conducted a news conference on various topics, after a tour of the gun manufacturing business, Cruz made a point of calling reporters, mostly from local Texas news organizations, back over to defend himself on Hagel.

"Washington is a rough and tumble place, and I certainly don't mind if some will take shots at me. What I do think is unfortunate is if the coverage of the political game overshadows the substance," argued Cruz, who went on to reiterate his concerns about Hagel's views on Israel and the broader Mideast, and his refusal to turn over information about payments Cruz suggested came from foreign governments.

Senate Democrats say the request for that information goes beyond the scope of what is traditionally asked of defense secratary nominees. Cruz argues Hagel could put concerns to rest by simply volunteering information beyond what is required, as other nominees of both parties have done in the past.

Attacks from establishment burnish appeal to Cruz's core

Cruz clearly understands that the more he is attacked by the so-called establishment, the more popular he is with his core conservative supporters inside Texas and around the country.

In fact, a group of national conservative leaders made a point of telling the conservative CNSNews that they are delighted that Cruz is already "rocking the boat" in Washington.

"Senator Cruz came to Washington to advance conservative policies, not play by the same old rules that have relegated conservatives, and their ideas, to the back bench," said Michael Needham, president of Heritage Action, which helps activate grass roots Republicans for conservative candidates and political causes.

But the criticism Cruz is getting isn't just about his public performances, it's also about the way he is coming across to his Senate colleagues in private.

Rove at center of GOP family feud

Senate GOP sources tell CNN that in Republican meetings, Cruz has surprised senior members by standing up and speaking at length, when freshmen senators traditionally take a more-low key, listen-and-learn approach.

One GOP senator told CNN that Cruz's bucking tradition has led several of his colleagues to conclude that even in the Senate, a place of healthy egos, Cruz stands out for the size of his.

Some of Cruz' supporters say he could benefit from adding a small dose of humor into his speeches and private interactions. But they also say Cruz went to Washington to use his intellect and fight for his beliefs, not to wait his turn.

"I think what Senator Cruz understands is that he has more to gain from adhering to his principles, staying in touch with the grass roots here and around the country than he does being friends with other senators," Steinhauser said. "The other senators and other folks on the House side certainly have low approval ratings across the board, and that's kind of because of the collegiality among them and the fact that they sell out the American people to the tune of 16 trillion dollars in debt."

"I think Ted Cruz has everything to gain by staying true to his principles and to his grass roots folks who elected him."

Cruz does find humor in one thing -- that he is getting criticized for following up on campaign promises that he openly and forcefully pushed in his campaign.

"I find it amusing that those in Washington are puzzled when someone actually does what they said they would do," Cruz said.

With that, the adoring crowd there to greet him at the gun manufacturing business broke out in laughter.

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