Ted Cruz idolizes Ronald Reagan -- and the 'real courage' of Barack Obama
Ted Cruz speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Ted Cruz idolizes Ronald Reagan. The Republican presidential hopeful has read dozens of biographies of the 40th president and invokes his name at every campaign stop.

In fact, Cruz discusses Reagan’s victory in the 1980 general election so often that a casual listener might think the Texas senator is preparing himself to run against Jimmy Carter and not Hillary Clinton.

Related: 'Pampered teenagers': Ted Cruz condemns Princeton campus protesters

But there’s one other modern president whom Cruz deeply admires – and it’s not a Republican. In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian, the first-term senator-in-a-hurry revealed that his push for the White House is based not only on the vision of Reagan, but the tactics of Barack Obama.

He deplores the direction Obama has taken at home and abroad, but praises him as someone who has “demonstrated real courage” in fighting for his principles. And his admiration for the “potent” Obama election machine is so great he admits buying copies of Democratic campaign manager David Plouffe’s memoirs to hand out to his own staff during his successful 2012 Senate race. “Obama ran a masterful campaign. It was a grassroots guerilla campaign, encircled the Hillary campaign before they knew what hit them,” the Texas senator said.

Like Obama, he is now ready to take on the party establishment as something of an insurgent. The difference is that Cruz hopes to use those same tactics to reverse every major accomplishment of the Obama administration while returning to what he sees as “common sense values”.

The 44-year-old Cuban-American is increasingly seen as a potential unity candidate for Republicans who see themselves as either outsiders, libertarians or deeply conservative evangelicals.

There are some in the political world that vilify Barack Obama. Personally, I’ve never been one of them

Ted Cruz

On a three-day swing across Iowa, plenty of Republicans were receptive to Cruz’s message as he drew big crowds in the smallest of towns. His campaign hoped to hold whistle-stop events at small-town gas stations where he could mingle with one or two dozen voters. Instead, he packed every stop, forcing inquisitive crowds to cram the aisles between refrigerated cases of soda and long links of beef jerky.

In the town of Van Horne, Iowa, (population 671), Cruz drew over 100 people at a Sunday night stop at the town gas station. The night before, he drew over 50 to a gas station in Chariton, Iowa at 10pm on a Saturday. However, one attendee told Cruz he shouldn’t be too impressed with the crowd – after all, there’s nothing else going in Chariton on Saturday night.

In Newton, Iowa, a town of 15,000, he drew the biggest crowd to a political event at Pizza Ranch , a local chain that is invariably visited by Republican candidates, ever since Rick Santorum visited on the eve of 2012 victory in the Iowa caucuses. He didn’t just limit himself to politics either.

Cruz is a self-described “happy warrior”, borrowing Wordsworth’s immortal line for Lord Nelson, given modern American political gloss by Reagan when he exhorted supporters three decades ago to “seize back a country”. Cruz trotted out a series of jokes at every event at the expense of targets like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and government bureaucrats which invariably met laughter, both from the audience and Cruz. The noted movie buff even performed an entire scene from the 1987 movie The Princess Bride imitating every character while speaking at an evangelical church service on Sunday morning in Des Moines.

Yet the outspoken conservative wasn’t all sunshine and jokes. In huddles with reporters across the weekend, Cruz took shots at Republican rival Marco Rubio for making “bogus attacks” on him and noted Rubio’s support of comprehensive immigration reform or as the Texas senator called it, Rubio’s “longtime partnership with and collaboration with President Obama ... in pushing a massive amnesty plan”.

The Republican hopeful also is not shy about tossing out red meat for his social conservative base. On Monday, Cruz cast scorn on the idea that Republicans were trying to reduce access to contraception, telling a questioner “Jiminy Crickets, this is a made-up, nonsense example! Last I checked we don’t have a rubber shortage in America.” He then reminisced about the condom machine in his college dorm bathroom.

For Cruz, who insists that he follows Reagan’s famous 11th commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican,” it was a delicate balance between “happy warrior” and aggressive politician. Speaking to the Guardian, he challenged the conventional wisdom that he was “the snarling face of the angry right”, a phrase used by one liberal presenter that the Texas Republican recited from memory.

“Many in the media like to characterize me and other conservatives as far right and extreme. And I think that’s all nonsense. The principles I am fighting for – live within your means, don’t bankrupt your kids and grandkids, follow the constitution – are the essence of common sense. They are the principles every small town, small business, families in this country have understood for hundreds of years

“Reagan got that, he got that simply giving voice to values of American people has power, and speaking the truth with a smile has enormous potency. It’s what Reagan did every day and what I’m trying to do in this campaign.”

Yet, Cruz, infamously described by Senate colleague John McCain as a “wackobird”, has made a surplus of enemies in Washington. He is widely disliked by many colleagues who see him as an unprincipled showboater. Cruz’s role in instigating a 17-day-long government shutdown in October 2013 is considered a deep source of frustration. Fellow Republicans thought that the shutdown, with the stated goal of forcing Obama to sign a bill defunding Obamacare, was doomed to fail. Yet, it burnished Cruz’s reputation with the conservative grassroots.

In campaign stops, the Texas Republican tried to use his unpopularity in Washington DC as an asset. “If you see a candidate who Washington embraces, run and hide,” he repeatedly told voters.

Cut from the same cloth

Despite their differing political outlooks, Cruz and Obama have similar life stories. Both Harvard Law graduates with undergraduate degrees from Ivy League schools, they grew up in complicated family circumstances. Obama was raised mostly by his grandparents after his Kenyan-born father abandoned his family in infancy although he spent several years in his youth with his mother and stepfather in Indonesia. Cruz was born in Canada in 1971 where his father, a Cuban refugee, had moved with his American-born mother to work in the oil and gas industry. Cruz’s father left the family before becoming Christian and returning.

Related: Ted Cruz on the campaign trail in Iowa – in pictures

Obama’s dash for the presidency is well-known, Cruz’s rise was almost as sudden. Although long seen as a rising star in conservative circles, Cruz was a longshot in his bid for a Senate seat in 2012, but he upset an establishment-backed rival with a dash to the right.

With his Latino heritage and solid conservative credentials, Cruz was immediately labeled a figure to watch and almost as quickly started to lay the groundwork for a potential presidential bid , appearing at Iowa cattle calls within months of his election.

Cruz and Obama do not just have biographical similarities, they also share a similar view of Reagan as a transformational figure. Obama said in a 2008 interview : “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not ... He tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want clarity, we want optimism.”

Cruz praised Obama’s Reagan-like sense of purpose: “If you look at the Reagan administration, one of the ways they implemented a conservative vision that really changed the direction of this country in a policy manner is that people were put in place who shared common ideals and understood the president’s principles and were prepared to implement him.

“To his credit, Barack Obama has done the same thing, there are some in the political world that vilify Barack Obama. Personally, I’ve never been one of them. I think he is deeply committed to his principles and demonstrated real courage in fighting for them.”

The Texas senator has pledged that, if elected, he’ll repeal the Obamacare health insurance reforms, abolish the IRS tax collection agency and four different cabinet departments, while defeating the Islamic State and ending illegal immigration by totally securing the US border with Mexico.

It is a drastically conservative view that would attempt to fundamentally change the role of government in American life and one perhaps best epitomized by a joke Cruz makes at every campaign stop about using pesticide on government bureaucrats.

But where Obama’s efforts have hit roadblocks in office, Cruz thought he could get around those. In the Texas senator’s opinion, “there is a limit to Obama’s model that although he organized from the grassroots, the policies that he is pushing I think are contrary to the views and values of the American people and so it becomes harder to energize and mobilize the grassroots”. In contrast, Cruz was confident that his principles were “the essence of common sense”.

Reagan tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want clarity, we want optimism

Ted Cruz

This vision resonated with many of those who came out to see Cruz, like Carson Haring, from Cambria, Iowa who drove 17 miles with four of his children to see the Texas senator at 10pm on a Saturday night. Haring told the Guardian that Cruz is “the first presidential candidate to remind me of Ronald Reagan in all these years”. He thought both shared in a belief “that the constitution comes first”.

Others were more skeptical, but Cruz as always invoked Reagan to ease fears. In a tiny restaurant in Lenox, Iowa, a town of just over 1,000 people and no traffic lights, the hopeful again summoned the 40th president to show that his promises were not delusional.

“Imagine all of us were sitting here, it was 1979, and imagine the former governor of California walked in and we sat down and listened to him,” Cruz told attendees. “Imagine if Reagan stood up and said ‘if you elect me president, we will cut the top marginal tax rate from 70% to 28%, we will dramatically reduce regulations killing small businesses. We will go from economic stagnation to by the fourth year of my presidency ... booming economic growth, millions will be lifted out of poverty. In addition to that Iran will release the hostages the day I am sworn into office and within a decade we will win the cold war and tear the Berlin Wall to the ground’. Now sir, if you and I, or any of us sitting there listening to Ronald Reagan in 1979 say that, we would have said this guy is bark-at-the-moon crazy, you cannot do that. . . You would have said this man does not understand Washington and politics.”

Snarling face of the right or bark-at-the-moon crazy, Cruz rejects both and sees himself as the next president of the United States. If Barack Obama can do it from the left, he believes he can do it from the right, with a grassroots army of his own.

Cruz v Obama: tale of the tape

Barack Obama

Born: 4 August 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii

Family: Wife Michelle and two daughters, Malia, 17, and Sasha, 14

Education: BA from Columbia University, 1983. JD from Harvard University, 1991

Arrival in Washington: Elected to US= Senate as Democrat from Illinois in 2004

Grassroots support: Through the third fundraising quarter of 2007, Obama raised $74.9m from over 352,000 donors

Campaign style: Built an army of organizers and used extensive modeling to identify potential voters

Soundbite: “That is why this campaign can’t only be about me. It must be about us – it must be about what we can do together.”

Ted Cruz

Born: 22 December 1970 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Family: Wife Heidi and two daughters, Caroline 7 and Catherine 4

Education: BA from Princeton University, 1992. JD from Harvard University, 1995

Arrival in Washington: Elected to US Senate as Republican from Texas in 2012

Grassroots support: Through the third fundraising quarter of 2007, Cruz raised $26.5m from over 362,000 donors.

Campaign style: While building a relatively lean campaign team, campaign has made extensive use of modeling to identify potential donors

Soundbite: “How do you break the Washington cartel? You make the political price of doing the wrong thing higher than the price of doing the right thing, and that can only come from ‘we the people’.”

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