Three Republican presidential hopefuls talked policy Sunday night at a panel sponsored by a group affiliated with the Koch brothers in hopes of winning over the influential billionaires' network of mega-donors. And while Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas seemed eager for approval from the influential audience, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul clashed with his colleagues on established GOP lines.
The panel, hosted by the Kochs' Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce in Palm Springs, Calif., and broadcast online in a show of transparency, offered a chance for the likely 2016ers, all first-term senators, to publicly vie for the far-reaching network's approval. Marking one of the first face-to-face forums in the contest, it gave a glimpse of the policy tensions that will arise if all three senators run.
For a presidential hopeful courting big-money donors, Rand Paul didn't seem too eager to please, frequently being greeted with awkward silence by the crowd while Rubio and Cruz saw applause.
He broke with his colleagues on Cuba, noting to the panel's moderator, ABC's Jonathan Karl, that, sitting between Cruz and Rubio, whose parents both emigrated from the country, "I'm kind of surrounded on this one." Calling his opponents' views isolationist, he said he supported President Obama's recent actions to thaw relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
"They behead people in the street in Saudi Arabia. I'm not a real big fan of a lot of these regimes, but I don't want to isolate ourselves and say we're not going to trade with people who aren't Western style democracies," Paul said. "Isolation hasn't worked."
Cruz, whose father left the island nation in 1957, has been an outspoken critic of Obama's shift on Cuba.
"This deal will keep the Castros in power, and it makes it less likely that when Fidel and Raul die, they will move to a free society," he told the audience Sunday night. "We want a free ally, not a hostile Communist country 90 miles from our shore trying to undermine America."
Paul calmly fired back: "Maybe, maybe not."
Revealing vestiges of his libertarian upbringing, he also advocated a markedly different approach to dealing with Iran. Arguing for negotiations over the country's nuclear capabilities, he said the U.S. "should give diplomacy a chance."
His colleagues bristled. Claiming that Iran's leaders are "radical religious Islamic nutcases," Cruz said that talks with the country were the worst "in the history of mankind." And Rubio insisted they "use negotiations as a tactic."
"At this pace, in five years, we're going to build the bomb for them," he said.
Breaking with prevailing Republican opinion, Paul was the lone member of the trio to argue for decreased defense spending. The Pentagon's "civilian bureaucracy," he said, takes away from real defense measures.
"The most important thing I would spend money on is defending the country," he said. "That being said, I'm not for a blank check. That being said, I'm for auditing the Pentagon."
Rubio, who has been polishing his national security credentials as a basis for a 2016 bid, agreed that there is waste in the defense budget. But he said the government doesn't spend too much money on national defense, pointing instead to a more practiced GOP target of extravagance: entitlement programs.
"That's the reason for our long-term debt," he said. "We are not in a debt crisis because of defense spending."
While Paul appeared unruffled by the audience's silent reception to his divergent views, both Cruz and Rubio sought to curry favor with the influential crowd—whom Cruz called "patriots." The Texas senator in particular laid on obsequious praise for the Kochs, who he said have "endured vilification with equanimity and grace."
"There are a bunch of Democrats that have taken as their talking point that the Koch brothers are the nexus of all evil in the world," Cruz said. "Let me be very clear: I think that is grotesque and offensive."