Two of the presidential candidates who gained the most traction out of the last 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 define a fork in the road for the Republican Party.
Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, after standout performances at the debate in Colorado last month, have both seen a spike in media attention, donations and poll standings. But they are appealing to very different wings of the GOP electorate, with Mr. Cruz rallying anti-Washington conservative forces and Mr. Rubio drawing strength from to the party’s business-friendly establishment wing.
Their differences of both style and substance will surface again Tuesday in the third GOP debate in Milwaukee, where both senators will try to keep the momentum going in a forum focusing on economic issues.
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 the political novices— Donald Trump and Ben Carson—who lead the GOP field. But the Cruz-Rubio surge raises a surprising prospect: Two Cuban Americans are moving from long-shot to top-tier candidates in a party that has struggled to win support from Hispanic voters.
Mr. Cruz said it was “plausible” that the primary would wind up being a Rubio-Cruz face off, citing the history of GOP contests that pitted a conservative against a more moderate 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 took off the gloves last week in an ad in Iowa that attacked Mr. Rubio for his record on immigration.
“We all loved how Marco Rubio took apart Jeb Bush in the debate,” says the narrator of an ad from the pro-Cruz PAC, Courageous Conservatives. “But what’s Rubio ever done?…Marco Rubio looks good on TV, but that’s about it.’’
That is a change in rhetoric from a major Senate debate in 2013—the filibuster to block funding for Obamacare—when Mr. Cruz showered his colleague with praise. “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.