Mike Lee on 3 GOP Candidates' Strengths, Weaknesses

Mike Lee on 3 GOP Candidates' Strengths, Weaknesses
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Sen. Mike Lee is in a unique position as the 2016 Republican primary field takes shape: Though not running himself, he’s close to three colleagues – Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – who are making White House bids. Speaking at a breakfast event Friday morning, Lee laid out the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Lee called the trio “three of my very closest allies in the Senate” at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, joking that it’s the first time he’s had that many co-workers seeking the Oval Office. He said he doesn’t expect to endorse one of them, mostly because that would be tantamount to “unendorsing” the other two.

As for their assets and liabilities as candidates, the Utah lawmaker cited a paradox concerning Cruz. (The two were famously paired in 2013 as they tried to halt funding for Obamacare, which ultimately led to a weeks-long government shutdown. Many Republicans criticized the tactic after most of the blame fell to their party, particularly Cruz and Lee.)

“Ideologically I share a lot in common with Ted Cruz and I like his passion and I like his dedication to conservative principles and his willingness to fight even when it’s hard,” Lee said of his Texas counterpart.  But “some of those same characteristics have also been characterized by some as a weakness, as an Achilles’ heel for him. We’ll see how the primary election voters feel about that at the end of the day.”

Another problem for Cruz – but one that again derives from a strength – is the passionate support he has from followers. Though his supporters are often involved in the grassroots conservative movement, Lee said the challenge for Cruz would be broadening his appeal within the party.

“The more people get to see him and interact with him, they will appreciate his passion,” Lee said. “Whether they share his particular political worldview or not is a different question.”

As for Rand Paul, the freshman senator from Kentucky who launched his presidential campaign earlier this week, Lee cited foreign policy as a potential weakness. He added that while Paul has strength from the network of supporters loyal to his father, Ron Paul, comparisons between the two might hurt the 2016 aspirant.

“There are some challenges that go along with that, given that Ron Paul had some fairly unique, idiosyncratic views on certain foreign policy issues that make some people nervous, and there are some who automatically assume that Rand Paul shares those views even where he doesn’t express them, even where he’s expressed sentiments that depart markedly from those of his father,” Lee said. “I think that’s a challenge that he’s going to have to overcome.”

Rubio is the only one of the three who has yet to officially announce his candidacy, though he’s expected to do so on Monday. Lee said he first heard the Florida senator speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2010, and was impressed with his skills in front of a crowd. He said he didn’t think there was another candidate in the field as capable of similarly captivating an audience.

“He’s one of these guys who can bring grown men to tears pretty quickly with emotion speaking about his great love for our country,” Lee said. “He’s got great vision and he’s an outstanding communicator, one of the best natural athletes in political terms that we’ve got today.”

Rubio’s weakness, however, could be his support for the ill-fated “Gang of Eight” immigration reform legislation that passed the Senate in 2013. The measure had bipartisan support in the upper chamber, but stalled in the House and was widely criticized by Republican voters. Though Lee said he doesn’t think Rubio’s presidential chances hinge on that position alone, it will be a negative for many GOP voters.

In general, Lee – who is up for re-election in 2016 – said he wants the party’s nominee to be someone who is “principled and positive and proven,” and someone who is “not afraid to demonstrate that commitment to conservative principles” and how they can help voters. Whether that person is Rubio, Paul, Cruz, or someone outside the confines of the Senate, remains to be seen.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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