The GOP’s leading candidates for the US presidential nomination are the equally despised authoritarian billionaire Donald Trump and religious zealot Ted Cruz, says Bette Browne

WHITE House contender Donald Trump is known for his incendiary campaign and his insulting of vulnerable minorities, but we are less familiar with his closest rival for the Republican nomination, Texas senator Ted Cruz.

Cruz touts his Irish roots even as he vows, like Trump, to deport thousands of Irish, and other illegal immigrants, from America if elected president.

He was born in Canada in 1970, to a Cuban father, and an American mother of Irish and Italian descent. Hence, Cruz likes to say: “I’m Cuban, Irish, and Italian.”

In contrast to Trump, who has no political experience, Cruz has been on the inside track of Republican politics for 15 years and has been a senator for the last four. He worked on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and served in that administration as associate deputy attorney general.

He spent five years as solicitor general of Texas, successfully arguing a number of cases before the US Supreme Court, before winning his Senate seat.

He is the darling of the rightist Tea Party, has strong evangelical support, and is regarded as a conservative ideologue, who eschews political compromise and condemns as traitors colleagues who seek any accommodation.

Thus, he is loathed even more than Trump in the halls of Congress. Republican senator Lindsey Graham, before opting for Cruz, summed up the choice between the two rivals for the nomination: It’s like deciding between “being shot or being poisoned.”

The loathing for both candidates runs deep. Trump has been called epithets such as phony, fraud, racist, sexist, demagogue, fascist, nativist, and bully.

Then again, these terms seem mild compared to the ones he has used. When he launched his campaign in New York last June, he called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals”.

Cruz, by contrast, keeps his language in check, but has been described as ruthless and sanctimonious, and is disliked so much by colleagues that he uses it as a badge of honour, calling himself a political outsider who is not part of the “Washington cartel”.

Republican Senate colleague John McCain particularly dislikes Cruz. In March 2013, McCain called Cruz a “wacko bird”, whose beliefs are not “reflective of the views of the majority of Republicans”.

In a heated Senate floor speech last year, Cruz accused Senate leader Mitch McConnell of telling “a flat-out lie”. In the same debate, he attacked other Republicans for not being conservative enough and for not sufficiently opposing US president Barack Obama’s agenda. He has repeatedly said the international nuclear agreement with Iran “will make the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism”.

Obama called Cruz’s statements an example of “outrageous attacks” from Republican critics, which have crossed the line of responsible discourse.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said connecting Obama to terrorism was “way over the line” and “hurts the cause”.

But Cruz won a major boost for “the cause” on March 23, when Jeb Bush, his one- time rival, endorsed him.

The former Florida governor particularly dislikes Trump, who belittled him in debates and trounced him in early primary contests. This was despite the fact that Bush had come into the race with the biggest-ever campaign war chest and a dynastic machine that had previously propelled both his brother and father to the White House.

But the endorsement may be too little, too late, because, just hours before it, Trump increased his delegate lead over Cruz still further with a big win in the Arizona primary to bring his delegate count to 738, compared with 463 for Cruz. To win the nomination, a candidate needs 1,237 delegates.

Even though Trump likes to talk about how bright he is (“I have a very good brain”), Cruz is seen as the smarter of the two candidates.

Cruz graduated from Harvard Law School with distinction in 1995, with a doctor of law degree. Referring to Cruz’s time as a student at Harvard, law professor Alan Dershowitz said: “Cruz was off-the-charts brilliant.”

During their primary debates, the candidates differed on their foreign policy stances: Trump would cosy up to Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom he’s praised as a strong leader, while Cruz sees Putin as a bully and a dictator.

After the Brussels attacks last week, Trump repeated that the US should close its borders to Muslims. Cruz said that US authorities should “patrol and secure” all Muslim neighbourhoods.

Trump is often seen as the more dangerous of the two because of his authoritarian streak and his willingness to exploit voters’ anger. But he is also seen as potentially malleable, whereas Cruz is seen as an inflexible zealot, lacking in the pragmatic skills required for political deal-making.

Most worrying for some is Trump’s strongman image. Time and again, protesters who have stood up to him, or even journalists who have questioned him, have been roughed up at his rallies. Rather than condemning this, Trump has used language that merely encourages it.

At a rally in Iowa, in February, he told his supporters to attack protesters: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ‘em, would you? Seriously. Okay? I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”

A few weeks later, at a February 22 rally in Las Vegas, he said of a protester: “I love the old days. We’re not allowed to punch back anymore. You know what they used to do to guys like that? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

Later, as the protester was being led away peacefully, Trump shouted: “The guards are very gentle with him. I’d like to punch him in the face.”

And so it continued. On March 12, a day after his rally in Chicago was cancelled due to protests, Trump turned on Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders, blaming him for the chaos and threatening to send his supporters to disrupt Sanders’ rallies. “Be careful, Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours,” he warned.

Then, on March 16, he said his supporters would riot at the Republican convention in July if he didn’t get the nomination. “I think you’d have riots,” he said on CNN.

Republicans are not the only ones with a Trump versus Cruz dilemma, however.

Democrats, too, lie awake at night wondering whether their presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton, would have a better chance of winning the presidency in a match-up against opportunist Trump or ideologue Cruz.

The jury is still out on that, but, either way, she’ll certainly have a fight on her hands.

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