It's Cruz and Rubio, not Trump and Carson

Story highlights

  • Tim Stanley: The Republican race could end up being between the fast rising Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio
  • He says both have conservative bona fides--unlike Trump, Carson; can capitalize on recast immigration debate: as foreign policy issue

Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Here's something that no liberal would ever have predicted: The Republican race could be between two candidates of Hispanic origin. Two months out from the Iowa caucus and the men with the most momentum right now are Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Rubio still needs to kill off the Bush candidacy to be the certified candidate of the mainstream, while surviving any late Chris Christie bump. Cruz has the tougher job of supplanting Donald Trump. But I think he can do it. Cruz is now running second in Iowa and could easily become this season's Mr. Conservative. Here's why.
First, external influences are pressing in. Immigration has consistently been THE issue in this election, thanks to Donald Trump's many pronouncements on the subject. But Trump has cast immigration as an economic matter, with a few tasteless — and unsupported -- allegations about violent crime. But after the terrorist attacks in Paris, immigration has been recast as a challenge for national security.
    Why does that shift the dynamics of the race? Because security favors candidates with a serious foreign policy record. Trump and Carson are outsiders who have betrayed obvious gaps in knowledge about international issues. That's not their fault: Trump has insisted he'll hire good advisers and Carson has done his best to catch up. But right now people are looking for a candidate who can confidently point to France on a map.
    In Cruz they get someone who can also attack Obama's foreign policy, who has a track record of standing up for Israel and who can say he's been talking about terrorism for a long time. So, too, has Marco Rubio: indeed he's one of the most neoconservative men in the race.
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    Second, Cruz ties this foreign policy approach in nicely with an appeal to the evangelical base. The mood among conservative Christians right now is apocalyptic. They feel their brothers and sisters are being persecuted overseas while, at home in America, liberals are trying to squeeze faith out of public life. Cruz speaks up for them -- often in a very effective way.
    He has mocked the nonsense of a Republican war on women, ridiculing the charge that they want to restrict access to contraception by drily noting that: "Last I checked we don't have a rubber shortage in America." He also criticized attempts to pin the Planned Parenthood shooting on pro-life rhetoric, dismissing the killer as a "deranged individual."
    Critics, including on the right, might find Cruz's approach crude. But, as Trump proves, crude works. And while Trump struggles to persuade voters that he's a deeply religious man, Cruz appears to be winning converts.
    Third, Cruz is helped by having skills that have been undervalued. Until now, voters have gravitated toward candidates who have either been inarticulate (Trump) or underwhelming (Carson) in debates or in speeches -- perhaps because these were taken as signs of honesty. But Cruz arguably won the infamous Colorado debate by displaying his Princeton debating team polish, which he used to give the "mainstream media" a lashing.
    As Jeff Greenfield writes, Cruz is the master of using any given question as a chance to pivot away and onto one of his campaign's finely honed themes. He does it so well and with such studied sincerity that it's no wonder the TV audience responds.
    Finally, Cruz has an ace up his sleeve when it comes to claiming the Mr. Conservative title: He is actually an ideological conservative.
    Republicans I speak to have a regular complaint -- they can't understand why Donald Trump plays so well with the GOP base when he has a history of policy positions to the left of Hillary Clinton. By contrast, Cruz has devoted his time in Congress to championing the conservative stance on everything from health care to crime. In fact, he's proven to be so stubborn that if he ever made it to the White House, he might have difficulties working with his own party.
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    Cruz is not universally loved in Washington: He's been dubbed "the most hated man in the Senate." He wears that as a badge of honor. But it arguably has contributed to the town's dysfunctionality.
    All his strong points do not, however, automatically add up to a Republican nomination. On the contrary, candidates who choose to lead the right-wing base in the primaries rarely ever get on the ticket. Pat Buchanan in 1996, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 all generated enough enthusiasm to win a few early states and hold back the mainstream leader -- but it wasn't enough to win.
    Republican presidential fields are diverse and contentious, but Republican voters tend to be a lot more cautious.
    That's why Marco Rubio has chosen a slightly more secure route to the White House: emerge as the favorite of the big money men and the establishment. He is defining himself as the candidate most able to beat Clinton and, perhaps more importantly at this stage, able to beat Donald Trump.
    And so Cruz and Rubio are now beating each other up over the two biggest issues of the moment: immigration and foreign policy. On the latter point, Cruz has stooped so low as to compare Rubio to Hillary Clinton. And in conservative circles, that's about as insulting as you can get.