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U.S. Senator Cruz catapults to fame with marathon anti-Obamacare speech

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks to the press after leaving the Senate Chamber after a marathon attack on "Obamacare," at the U.S. Capito
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks to the press after leaving the Senate Chamber after a marathon attack on "Obamacare," at the U.S. Capito

By Thomas Ferraro and Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As Ted Cruz's anti-Obamacare U.S. Senate talkathon entered its 19th hour early on Wednesday, Tea Party Patriots leader Jenny Beth Martin said that "by the time this is over, most people in America are going to know who Ted Cruz is."

When the 21st and final hour came at noon, the freshman Republican U.S. senator, his tie askew, his hand on his heart in a final flourish, had been catapulted into the public consciousness.

Whether or not he actually seeks his party's presidential nomination in 2016, as some pundits expect, the former Texas solicitor general has become a "name," and a potential presidential contender.

"Ted Cruz" was the top search on Google, ahead of "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," a drama that premiered on ABC, National League Football star quarterback Peyton Manning and NBC'S "The Voice."

Ted Cruz was trending on CNN's website, overtaking the attack by Islamist militants in a Kenyan shopping mall and singer Miley Cyrus.

A White House official singled him out for criticism, perhaps the greatest badge of honor for Cruz and followers of the conservative Tea Party movement.

Democrats as well as Republicans were using him to raise money.

And the 42-year-old Cruz had become, at least for the moment, the face of the movement against Obamacare, President Barack Obama's sweeping 2010 healthcare restructuring law that extends health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.

Republicans view the law as a massive government intrusion into the private sector that will make healthcare costlier and help bankrupt the government.

Cruz's speech, which had the look of an old-fashioned filibuster used traditionally by senators to block legislation, aimed to build support for a Republican bill that would withhold funds to operate the government unless Obamacare was gutted.

However, few of his Republican colleagues joined his effort.

In fact, a majority of the 46 Republican senators may line up with their party leaders, who want to pass an emergency spending bill by September 30 that would avoid a federal government shutdown.

Cruz said repeatedly during the night that it didn't matter to him that he was alienating other Senate Republicans, urging constituents of senators who appeared soft on Obamacare to hound their member, "by the thousands."

He said he was not concerned that his speech would have no impact on the outcome of the legislation before the Senate.

A VOICE FOR MILLIONS

What mattered, he said, was that he had "provided a voice" for millions of Americans against the "ruling class" in Washington.

"Firing up the base is what his first step is," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of political science at the University of Texas in Austin.

"He doesn't care about the establishment Republicans," said Buchanan, noting that conservative activists vote in Republican primaries in huge numbers.

He's also playing to "a well-heeled group" of Tea Party financiers who helped get him elected senator of Texas, Buchanan said.

"Cruz can afford at this stage to alienate some of those Republican centrists."

Among potential Republican presidential contenders, he said, "Cruz is taking up all the oxygen right now."

Even if he isn't a presidential candidate yet, Cruz was getting the media attention of one.

When he left the Senate chamber at the end of his speech, he was swarmed by reporters. Cruz reiterated why he disliked Obamacare and then added that the debate was now "in the hands of the American people" and that he had "spoken long enough."

Cruz showed overnight that he will be a formidable presence in primary election debates if he makes a White House bid.

He's got the folksiness of a Texas politician, the aggressiveness of a Harvard Law School-trained litigator and the theatrical flair and delivery of a televangelist.

"Will we respond to the suffering Obamacare is causing?," he chanted without a script. "Will we respond to the millions of people who are jobless? Will we respond to the people getting forced into part-time work? Will we respond to the people who are losing their healthcare or will we continue to say: For me but not for thee?"

In the space of a few hours, he dissected Supreme Court opinions, the Old Testament and "Green Eggs and Ham," a best-selling 1960 children's book by Dr. Seuss in which Cruz saw a metaphor for Obamacare.

He was also over the edge, in the view of many of his Republican colleagues in the Senate.

DISAPPROVAL

U.S. Senator John McCain took him aside privately after the speech to disapprove of Cruz's comparison of members who opposed his effort with those who appeased the Nazis before World War Two.

McCain, whose father fought in that war, said Cruz told him he wasn't talking about McCain or any other senator, but rather "pundits" in the media.

McCain said that was "unacceptable" and took to the Senate floor to criticize Cruz.

Avik Roy, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute think tank and a former adviser to 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said Cruz would have some fence-mending to do with his Republican colleagues.

"Ted Cruz has angered a lot of conservatives and a lot of Republicans who have been opposed to Obamacare" but who disagree with the strategy of risking a government shutdown to try to defund the healthcare law, Roy said.

But Cruz has what political consultants call "a story." His father fled to Texas from Cuba in the 1950s, worked as a dishwasher to put himself through college and started a business.

Ted Cruz won scholarships by competing in libertarian-sponsored oratorical contests, became a debater at Princeton, graduated from Harvard Law School in 1995 and clerked for a conservative icon, the late U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

He became a successful lawyer, was appointed solicitor general of Texas in 2003 and ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012, with the endorsement of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and the conservative Club for Growth.

Most of Cruz's 99 colleagues didn't bother to enter the Senate to watch his performance, but many Americans saw it on the C-Span cable network, and on videos that went viral through the night and on Wednesday.

"He is standing shoulder to shoulder with the American people, and other senators will know that they should be as well," said Martin, the Tea Party Patriots president.

Martin's group helped organize a "defund Obamacare" rally outside the U.S. Capitol on September 10 that greeted Cruz, who was in attendance, with chants of "run, run, run."

"I can't imagine the type of reception he will receive at his next rally. It will be truly amazing," Martin said.

(Editing by Fred Barbash and Paul Simao)

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