By Melissa Davlin and Seth Ogilvie
Two Republican presidential candidates visited Idaho within 24 hours of each other over the weekend. There was a lot to compare and contrast, so we put together a little discussion on our thoughts.
MELISSA: Over the weekend, Seth and I covered the Cruz and Rubio rallies in Boise. While they’re both contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, the two events were pretty different. We’ll get more into that, but what were your knee-jerk takeaways?
SETH: First, a little on political theater. Sen. Marco Rubio was liberated by not having a podium. We saw the senator talk at the Idaho Republican Party summer meeting in June. He stood locked behind a podium; he seemed stiff, he sounded scripted, and the newness and youthful exuberance his campaign was trying to capitalize on didn’t translate. On Sunday, the podium was gone, and Rubio’s charisma was free. He was engaging, able to move with the crowd, and the watchful eye of our Senator Jim Risch gave Rubio’s virility the appearance of optimism rather than inexperience. Sen. Ted Cruz, on the other hand, seemed comfortable behind the podium. He was in command of the room, comfortable with long breaks in his speech as the crowd cheered. The podium seemed to give him power, a stark difference from Rubio’s first visit to Idaho. But there were also significant differences in the opening acts. Melissa?
MELISSA: Right. The Cruz rally had a large line-up of speakers, mostly current and former state representatives like Heather Scott, Greg Chaney and Brent Crane, as well as Greg Pruett from the Second Amendment Alliance and event organizer Ryan Davidson. That was likely a product of the rally’s original format — Cruz wasn’t initially going to be at the “Cruz To Victory” rally, and only confirmed his presence about six hours before he arrived in Boise on Saturday. But compare that to Rubio, who had Risch and State Controller Brandon Woolf introduce him. That’s an interesting dichotomy there. Cruz, who has branded himself as anti-establishment, had local activists and state representatives speaking on his behalf. While Scott, Chaney and Crane are all elected officials, they’re more accessible to the average Idahoan than, say, a US senator. Woolf and Risch did a great job getting the crowd ready for Rubio, but that line-up further cemented Rubio’s role as the one establishment guy who is left in the race — whether that’s a message Rubio wants to convey or not. And for many Republicans, that’s not a bad thing at all.
SETH: But we haven’t seen the strategy work in the Republican party this year. I’m thinking of Gov. Jeb Bush, who came out of the gate with big endorsements and a huge war chest of money. In Idaho, that was Rubio; At the starting line, he had the financial and philosophical backing of Frank Vandersloot. When introduced to Idaho Republicans this summer by Congressman Raul Labrador, Sen. Risch, and Sen. Mike Crapo (all of whom didn’t just vouch for him politically, but spoke to his qualities as a man and their friend) he wrapped himself in almost all the Washington elite Idaho had to offer. By contrast, Trump has been winning as a political outsider. In the Nevada caucus, a western state with a few parallels to Idaho (I’m thinking lands, water, and Second Amendment issues) 6 in 10 caucus-goers wanted an outsider, and the caucus went to Trump. Cruz embraced the outsider mantle on Saturday in Boise. He mentioned federal lands and the Second Amendment, citing specific western examples, and he separated himself from the Idaho establishment. Rally organizers and speakers highlighted the Idaho Freedom Foundation, Labrador, and other politicians and organizations more closely aligned with anti-establishment conservative politics. Cruz’s comments focused much more on his understanding of Idaho issues — an advantage that you would think Rubio would have, given his previous visits. Cruz’s comfort level was typified by his eagerness to take questions from local media, an opportunity Rubio overtly avoided in Boise.
MELISSA: I have to admit I’m disappointed Rubio didn’t take questions from reporters. It wasn’t because he didn’t have time — the senator didn’t hop on a plane until the next morning, and he mingled with supporters for more than half an hour after the event wrapped up. That crowd interaction is great (dozens of attendees scored selfies with the candidate, and we witnessed a cute moment backstage where Rubio compared the size of his hands with a young fan), but talking to reporters is the best way to reach local voters who didn’t attend the rally. Rubio missed an opportunity to distinguish himself from Cruz (or, to put a finer point on it, attack Cruz) on Idaho-specific issues like federal lands and the future of the Department of Energy. Cruz, on the other hand, answered questions from reporters in an intimate setting after his speech, and even after his campaign handlers tried to wrap up the press conference, he took the time to answer an additional query from Bill Dentzer of the Idaho Statesman. (I did appreciate that reporters were allowed to get right up next to the stage at the Rubio rally, though. We snagged some great photos of Rubio and Risch on stage.) The two candidates had different approaches to their campaign speeches, too.
SETH: Both talked about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both painted a picture of a country in crisis, and both took shots at Obama policies from the military to the Affordable Care Act. The difference wasn’t in the problems or even necessarily in the solutions; it was in the vision of how the country would get there. Rubio put his faith in the American dream, the immigrant story and the lessons learned from the greatest generation. He told the story of his parents fleeing Castro in Cuba and finding opportunity in America. That opportunity wasn’t ensured success. It was an invitation to work hard, integrate into society and raise their children with strong values to contribute. The first words of English Rubio’s father learned were “I’m looking for work.” Rubio looked to the American people, the American dream and that work ethic his father had as the path forward for our country. It echoed sentiments from Ronald Reagan’s campaign speeches: “It’s morning in America” from his second presidential run, and “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” from his first, a poignant parallel on the day Nancy Reagan died. The oratory focused on hope in a time of crisis, and that hope was the American people. The Cruz campaign looked to policy, and the things he as president could do.
MELISSA: Cruz did mention a few more specifics, such as abolishing the the EPA and IRS, and implementing a flat tax. He got big cheers from the crowd when he discussed the importance of nominating Supreme Court justices who would protect Second Amendment rights. One interesting note: Cruz spoke in Boise on Saturday as results from four Republican contests in other states were trickling in, and he got word while on stage that he won Maine. He quickly pivoted to giving a victory speech, thanking the voters of Kansas and Maine while asking Idahoans to vote for him on Tuesday. But Cruz wasn’t the only speaker who stood out at Saturday’s rally…
SETH: On the stage to introduce Rubio was the seasoned political orator Risch, but for Cruz, it was Rep. Brent Crane from Nampa. I asked Crane after the rally how many times he’d done something like this. “Like this? Never,” he said, adding he seldom gives speeches outside of the statehouse. He should think about doing it more often. The competing goals of filling time and exciting the crowd can sometimes end with the speaker losing the room. Crane did not lose the room. He hit his time and built to a crescendo with the phrase “Let’s fire a Cruz missile at the White House.” Cruz may not win Idaho, but we may have seen a sneak peek at a Crane campaign Idaho could see down the road.
MELISSA: I’ll avoid speculating on Brent Crane’s political aspirations here, but he really did do a fine job with his speech. Another sign of the grassroots feel of the Cruz rally: Rep. Scott and organizer Ryan Davidson both encouraged conservatives to run for office, from the state legislature to Republican precinct committeemen. Side note: Props to the Cruz rally organizers for shifting gears so quickly on Saturday afternoon once the candidate confirmed his presence there.
With that, watch for details of our live online coverage on Tuesday night as results from Idaho’s Republican presidential primary come in.