ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — On paper, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul aren't that different.
They both vote similarly, espouse similar beliefs on liberty and the constitution, and are both very likely 2016 presidential contenders. And both delivered speeches on Thursday at the Liberty Political Action Conference — a place where diehards of the Ron Paul and libertarian movements gather to hear from their political heroes.
The conference is explicitly geared toward Rand supporters; his face is everywhere and conferencegoers could snap photos with a cutout of the senator at the RANDPac booth as well as pick up "Stand with Rand" bracelets.
But that doesn't mean Cruz, already a darling of the social conservative and Tea Party movements, is abandoning the GOP's libertarian wing — he has steadily been trying to make inroads with the increasingly influential libertarian faction in an attempt to syphon off support from Paul.
Cruz's speech was full of applause lines for the crowd, and plenty of criticism for the Obama administration. He went through the bill of rights, hitting Senate Democrats, and said Obama's "assault on free speech" has been "unparalleled." There was an Atlas Shrugged shout-out and criticism of the over-militarization of police — all winners with the libertarian crowd.
And while attendees walked away impressed, the liberty movement remains skeptical of Cruz as a guy who is really on their side.
"I appreciate the liberty things that Cruz does, but he's too polarizing sometimes. He's become the whipping boy for the left," said Jason Amatucci, a conferencegoer from Virginia. "I also think he's hypocritical on his marijuana stance. I don't see how you can sit there and say everybody should have guns but draw the line on the drug war. I think that's just ridiculous."
In fact, Cruz's overt partisan criticism of the Obama administration, as opposed to substantive policy critiques, was repeatedly cited as a reason why he'll have trouble expanding his support with libertarians, who are often skeptical of party politics.
"Rand is attacking government policy, not particularly any administration. Cruz seems to be, even though I'm a full supporter of him, a lot more blatant attacking the administration," said Dennis Wade. "It's easier to win people over to liberty when you are not attacking someone personally … When you are talking about the administration, you can lose some listeners in that battle."
Dan Feliciano, the Libertarian Party candidate for governor in Vermont, said he thought Cruz was "not as appealing, if you will," as other candidates.
"I think he's trying to have it both ways," Feliciano said, citing Cruz's support of "traditional big government, big defense, 'we're going to protect the world.'"
"You can't have it both ways," Feliciano said.
Cruz has made conspicuous efforts to reach out to establishment Republicans and to neoconservatives, groups that are widely mistrusted among libertarian-leaning voters. For instance, earlier this month Cruz met with major Republican donors and neoconservative figures like Bill Kristol.
And Cruz has staked out a more hawkish position on foreign policy than Paul, making full-throated defenses of Israel his trademark. While his staged walkout last week at a conference of Middle Eastern Christians critical of Israel may have played well with neocons, it's not the sort of thing that libertarians will look favorably on.
"There are a lot of libertarians that are non-interventionists. Like on Israel, we believe they have a right to exist and everything, but we just don't think we need to be giving them so much aid," said James Maier, who called Cruz "a disappointment."
Iris Gaddis, a Houston area real estate investor, said she would accept Cruz as a second choice in 2016, but didn't view him as an authentic libertarian.
"He's conservative for sure and he's a little bit liberty-minded, but not near as much as Rand Paul, [Rep.] Justin Amash and [Rep.] Thomas Massie," she said.
Though Cruz is "trying real hard to go after that segment," he isn't totally succeeding, she said.
"I like Ted Cruz but he's not authentic," she said. "We know he's not a libertarian but he's a good guy, and if Rand wasn't in the race I would support him."