Many Republicans view Ted Cruz as the Texas version of Marco Rubio, the Hispanic U.S. senator from Florida whose conservative philosophy and strong oratory skills helped make him a national tea party force seemingly overnight.
But unlike Rubio, who served several years in the Florida Statehouse before winning his Senate seat, Cruz has never appeared on a ballot. The son of a Cuban immigrant got most of his seasoning for next month's Senate primary by arguing in front of the state Supreme Court as the longest-serving Texas solicitor general.
Cruz systematically argues his case to voters as if standing in front of a jury. He jokes about politicians being "blood-sucking parasites" and proof that "invertebrates can walk upright."
"I confess, I'm a TV yeller," Cruz says, laughing about how he reacts to television news. But the joke reinforces his self-image as a conservative fighter, which happens to be what polls say Texas Republicans want.
To tea party leaders, and he has been endorsed by several in his race against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Cruz has the conservative background to match the rhetoric. The self-professed child of the Reagan revolution made college money in the 1980s by reciting the Constitution from memory to Houston-area Rotary Clubs and giving speeches advocating free-market economics.
Cruz brags about how his Cuban father fought with rebels supporting Fidel Castro against dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, before Castro announced that he was a communist. Rafael Cruz fled the country and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, then moved to Canada to work in the oil fields near Alberta, where Ted Cruz was born. The family eventually moved to Houston, and his father became a U.S. citizen in 2005.
Ted Cruz won national debate championships at Princeton University. At Harvard Law School, he was the primary editor of the Law Review and founding editor of the Latino Law Review. It was there that he fell in love with his wife while both were working on George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. When Bush took office, he made Cruz an associate deputy attorney general.
Republican U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Toomey of Pennsylvania are urging activists to pump money into Cruz's campaign against Dewhurst, a multi-millionaire and 14-year veteran of Texas politics.
"Ted Cruz has a deep appreciation for the U.S. Constitution and he's someone conservatives can count on to fight for the principles of freedom that make America great," DeMint said.
DeMint's Senate Conservative's Fund has given Cruz nearly $1 million, and former Texas U.S. Rep. Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, a national activist group, has trained dozens of volunteers. Cruz also counts the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson as supporters.
While his campaign against Dewhurst has been heated at times, Cruz saves most of his criticism for Barack Obama, who he calls the most radical president in U.S. history.
"Never has our liberty been more threatened from Washington," Cruz said in almost a conspiratorial whisper to 35 elderly voters in Georgetown, 30 miles north of Austin. "Texans want a fighter, not a timid career politician."
Cruz's challengers complain that he zealously spins quotes and facts and sometimes misleads his audience. He frequently attributes to his father a saying about preserving liberty in America, when the quotation was commonplace and repeated on national television by Ronald Reagan in 1964. Cruz often quotes Dewhurst from an Associated Press article saying that he supports an income tax, which is currently illegal in Texas. But Dewhurst was talking about reforming the state's business tax, which is not based on income and forces companies to pay taxes even when they are losing money.
Dewhurst never supported a personal income tax. Dewhurst also complains that Cruz takes too much credit for fulfilling assignments given by his boss while serving as solicitor general.
"Like Barack Obama, Ted Cruz is a Harvard-educated trial lawyer who gets paid to talk a good game," said Matt Hirsch, Dewhurst's spokesman. "Cruz's sole record revolves around co-opting Attorney General Greg Abbott's accomplishments."
Cruz said that if Dewhurst disagrees with these depictions, he should participate in more debates. Both men appeared in a debate televised statewide Friday along with former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, a business executive also in the race, who questioned Cruz's experience.
"You've been a terrific staffer in the attorney general's office, but the reality of it is you haven't led businesses," Leppert told Cruz. "To you it is an academic exercise. To me it's a career."
Even though Cruz is thankful for national endorsements, his campaign is grass-roots. He attends every small town event he can, introducing himself to voters, most of whom have never heard of him. He admits he has little hope of winning the nine-candidate May 29 primary outright, but he hopes to join Dewhurst in a run-off on July 31, when experts say turn-out will be extremely low and activist voters will likely choose the winner.
Cruz also promises to fight Republicans as well as Democrats. He complains that some Republicans have been "complicit with the Democrats in growing the size, power and spending of the federal government."
"The big reason that Barack Obama got elected is because Republicans weren't standing for principle," Cruz said. "We had lost our way."