It appears to be a three-way tie in the Mike Lee presidential primary. At a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington Friday morning, the Republican and first-term senator from Utah spoke glowingly about his “three best friends” in the Senate who are or are preparing to run for president: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio. Lee wouldn't say which candidate he preferred, though he seemed particularly laudatory of Rubio.
Ted Cruz has been Lee’s partner-in-crime during the duo’s efforts in the Senate to defund Obamacare and block funding for President Obama’s immigration executive order, and he says he shares “a lot in common” with the Texan on ideology. “I like his passion and I like his dedication to conservative principles and his willingness to fight, even when it’s hard,” said Lee. But he also questioned whether Cruz would be able to appeal to voters outside his core group of supporters.
Lee lauded Rand Paul as well, citing a George Will column from 2010 that suggested the two Tea Party-backed Senate candidates would become fast friends if elected. He confirmed Will’s assessment was correct. “Rand and I have been friends ever since we were both running for the Senate in 2010,” he said.
Lee didn’t seem particularly bothered by the fact that Paul’s announcement this week that the Kentucky senator was running for president came on the same day as the release of Lee’s new book, Our Lost Constitution. Asked about Paul’s weakness as a candidate, Lee said his friend’s “biggest challenge” would be defending his foreign policy views.
“I thought it was interesting and unfortunate that he was hit with these attack ads on the day of his announcement and that he was attacked,” said Lee, referring to the paid advertisements running in early primary states that criticize Paul’s national security positions.
But Lee may have reserved his biggest praise for Marco Rubio, who is expected to announce his candidacy next week. The Florida Republican has joined Lee in introducing a significant tax-reform plan, and the two have been close since both ran and won their Senate seats in 2010. Lee said he remembered seeing Rubio speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference that year, noting he was “immediately impressed.”
“I don’t know if we have another presidential candidate who’s as good as Rubio is at communicating and delivering a speech and inviting the audience to have an emotional journey as he speaks. He’s one of these who can bring grown men to tears very quickly,” Lee said. “He’s one of the best natural athletes in political terms that we’ve got today.”
He noted Rubio may have trouble in a GOP primary with his involvement in the Gang of Eight immigration bill, an issue on which Lee said he opposed Rubio. But Lee said the Gang of Eight was “years ago” (in fact, the bill was introduced in 2013) and suggested the issue won’t play a large role. When asked if he thought the tax-reform proposal might be a boon to Rubio’s potential candidacy, Lee shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to win as a one-trick pony,” said Lee. “I think he’s a good candidate.”
Lee has spoken out before about his desire to influence the 2016 presidential field as well as the Republican policy platform. He said as much in an interview earlier this year with THE WEEKLY STANDARD:
Lee knows he isn’t the presidential candidate conservatives are looking for, but he’s got his eyes on that “positive, innovative, and unapologetically conservative agenda.” He’s not shy about the role he’d like to play. “I do want to influence that debate,” Lee says. His slate of policy proposals isn’t light fare. Since 2013, Lee has introduced bills to make the tax code more family friendly, take on cronyism in Washington, reform the college accreditation system, and change the way the federal government funds transportation infrastructure. But what Lee really wants is to change the way conservatives think about domestic policy, reorienting the Republican party toward a family-focused, constitutional populism to help the GOP win back the White House. If Lee succeeds, it will make him one of the most consequential conservatives of his generation.