DES MOINES, Iowa — The heartland Ted Cruz is a charismatic curiosity to a lot of Republicans, an articulate, long-sought dissenter against all things Washington.
But among establishment figures and Washington insiders, the Texas senator is a virtual pariah, derided by colleagues in his own party and a gift to Democrats who see enormous benefit in painting him as the symbol of an out of touch, radically conservative Republican Party.
All those descriptions make sense, and that's why Cruz is both someone to be reckoned with politically — and someone whose future appears limited.
Though in office only since January, he visited Iowa last week for the third time to speak at one of the state party's showcase dinners. Then he went pheasant hunting with local Republicans. Those are surefire ways to let the political world know you're thinking of running for president, since the state's caucus has in recent times been the nation's first nominating test.
Cruz, 42, accomplished what he wanted here: He piqued interest among the Republicans who commit money and time to the party cause. Party Chairman A.J. Spiker put Cruz in the top tier of potential 2016 Republican hopefuls, grouping him with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Kevin Hall, a party activist and columnist for TheIowaRepublican.com website, saw Cruz as having appeal: "He talks common sense, he has charisma, and Republicans are dying for someone who will fight hard."
But many might not want someone with such a confrontational style — like Cruz's 21-hour, 19-minute talkathon against the Affordable Care Act last month. It's telling that the pros put Christie in the 2016 mix, since his apparent impatience for ideological purity over getting things done would seem an unusual fit among the conservatives who dominate the party.
Cruz triggers interest, though, because Republicans at this early stage are open to someone who can rev them up; it's been years since they've gotten that feeling from a potential White House candidate. Diehard conservatives never warmed to Mitt Romney in 2012 or John McCain in 2008, and their search for an alternative fell short for a host of reasons. Think Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry.
To the diehards, however, Cruz has the resume and the chutzpah to charge ahead on his own path. Every skeptic or enemy seems to add to his allure.
Iowa Democratic Chairman Scott Brennan charged Cruz engages routinely in "extreme political extortion."
When Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad spoke Friday before Cruz at the party's Ronald Reagan dinner, he spent most of the time praising the work of Republican governors, barely citing Cruz. Back in Washington, Cruz has for weeks seemed to take delight in provoking McCain and other party stalwarts, who criticized him publicly.
A lot of heartland Republicans love Cruz's swashbuckling style.
"There are so few people of principle that when you see one, you just think it's great," said Joel Kurtinitis, a West Des Moines software analyst.
Cruz touts his common man credentials, citing his father, a Cuban native imprisoned under dictator Fulgencio Batista. The father fled Cuba in 1957, "penniless and not speaking a word of English," according to his son's biography. He's now a pastor in Dallas.
Ted Cruz became Texas' solicitor general. Last year, with the help of tea party activists, he took on the Texas Republican establishment and trounced its anointed Senate candidate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
It was arguably the year's biggest upset, illustrating how traditional establishment support and money can be beaten by the right candidate galvanizing a popular uprising.
A lot of Republicans want that energy translated to a national campaign, as they feel that Washington is too bloated and too much a get-along, go-along kind of place, regardless of party.
But Cruz's remarks in Iowa also showed why he drives other Republicans crazy. He railed against GOP colleagues who voted to end the recent government shutdown. He compared the Obama administration to that of President Jimmy Carter, even though interest and inflation rates today are almost negligible, while under Carter they were rising to double digits.
And rousing speeches are no guarantee of stardom. Recent presidential political history is littered with candidates who drew big, enthusiastic crowds for a few weeks — retired Gen. Wesley Clark in 2004 and Texas Gov. Rick Perry last year, to name just two — who quickly became footnotes.
Inciting a crowd eager to be on its feet and demonstrating the judgment and gravitas to be president are two very different qualities, and Cruz is still far from proving he possesses the latter.