WASHINGTON -- Inside yet another darkened hotel ballroom, three Republican presidential hopefuls appeared Friday before the culture warrior faithful and played the political version of high striker, seeing who could bring the mallet down the hardest and ring the bell the most times.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas presided over a pep rally, telling the crowd at the Values Voter Summit that President Barack Obama fears them and that conservative believers can turn back the tide of liberalism. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky expounded at length about the threat to Christianity and the West from radical Islam. And Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida pledged fealty to Jesus Christ and the American dream, while making sure never to mention immigration reform.
The crowd, of course, loved it all. But as Rubio, the third of the three freshman senators to speak, wrapped up, the most relevant development for the 2016 presidential race may have been an email regarding a Republican politician who wasn't even there.
EMILY's List, one of the nation's biggest liberal political groups for women, sent out a press release calling New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie "anti-gay" and "hopelessly out of touch." Christie's 2012 veto of a gay marriage bill -- he believes voters should decide the issue in a referendum -- is back in the news, after a New Jersey judge ruled last month that same-sex couples can marry in the state beginning Oct. 21. Christie is appealing the ruling.
The EMILY's List hit on Christie came off as an attempt to associate the governor, despite his absence, with the crowd of roughly 2,000 social conservatives gathered here in Washington. Increasingly, Christie, who is cruising toward an easy reelection next month, looks like the most formidable GOP candidate for president from the perspective of Democrats gaming out a general election.
Cruz is the potential reincarnation of the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican who rode a wave of purist conservative momentum to win the GOP nomination in 1964 and then carried only six states in the general election, losing badly to Lyndon Johnson. Twice in the last week, Goldwater has come up in private conversations with this reporter, once while speaking with a moderate Democratic senator and a second time speaking with a top official at a conservative pressure group that has supported Cruz's effort to defund Obamacare. Both the senator and the advocate were clear that Cruz would lose, and lose big, if he were the Republican nominee in 2016.
Paul is a bit of a wild card. He has tacked, subtly and slowly, to the center as Cruz has captured the far right of the GOP. But Paul remains beloved by the tea party and by many supporters of his father's failed presidential campaigns, and he has shown an ability to pick issues, such as Obama's drone policy, with which to create cross-partisan momentum. Yet some of his positions, such as his take on taxes, are so conservative that it is hard to envision independents embracing them. Being a white, male, southern Republican is also likely to be a cultural turnoff to many younger and non-white voters.
Rubio, meanwhile, has lost his way since the heady days after last fall's election when Time magazine put him on its cover and anointed him "The Republican Savior." His fight for immigration reform cooled off the support of many hardcore conservatives. Then he alienated the business and establishment wing of the party by veering wildly to the right and joining Cruz's defund-Obamacare quest. Rubio's speech to the Values Voter group had the whiff of uncertainty, of a man who knows he is now viewed with a certain suspicion by the grassroots faithful and is anxious to regain their good graces. Among political observers, this kind of behavior has raised serious doubts about Rubio's fortitude.
It is Rubio's struggle that has opened the door for Christie to assume the mantle of centrist, establishment conservatism. No doubt there is risk in occupying this ground, with the Republican grassroots as hostile as they are to any whiff of moderation or compromise. But if he could make it through a Republican presidential primary and continue to bring down his weight, Christie's record as a two-term GOP governor in a state as blue as New Jersey and his blunt, confrontational style would present Democrats with an opponent unlike any they have ever seen on the national stage.
So the attacks on Christie from the left have begun, and will continue, in the effort to nudge him out of that centrist position he holds in the minds of many Americans, and toward the ballroom crowd who cheered Cruz loudly as he vowed no surrender and ignored the opinion polls showing Republican approval ratings dropping like a rock because of his tactics.
"The House of Representatives needs to keep doing what it’s been doing, which is standing strong," Cruz said to applause. "And that is the model for every other fight. We need no more Washington solutions. We need to go back to the American people."