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US shutdown leader Ted Cruz, a conservative rock star

People walk through the hallway of the US Capitol on September 25, 2013, after US Senator Ted Cruz(ended his talk-a-thon on the floor of the US Senate in Washington, DC
With five days until a possible US government shutdown, lawmakers were to mull options Thursday for keeping agencies open while potentially postponing a battle over President Barack Obama's health care law.

Dangerous demagogue or a champion of the common folk? Savvy strategist or "wacko bird"? Love him or hate him, Ted Cruz's national profile has soared during the recent government shutdown.

Cruz, a 43 year-old Republican senator from Texas, led the charge by the party's ultraconservative Tea Party faction to shut down the federal government, in the process pushing the United States to the brink of default.

Polls show popular support for the Republican Party, blamed for the shutdown, at an all-time low.

But his support among hardline conservatives has strengthened. Backing for Cruz from conservative Republicans is at 74 percent -- a 27 percent jump from July, according to a recent Pew poll.

US Senator Ted Cruz speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC
US Senator Ted Cruz speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC

Even though he is just completing his first year in the US senate, the flamboyant politician appears to be positioning himself for a run as president in the 2016 election.

Yet Cruz has angered senior politicians in both parties for showing little deference to seniority and taking over the spotlight from more experienced party stalwarts.

A master orator with a clear sense of mission, he appears to revel in defying the Washington establishment -- a trait on full display as he spoke for more than 21 hours straight to try to block a stopgap spending bill in the lead-up to the shutdown.

Many fellow Republicans have blasted Cruz for convincing Tea Party adherents in the House of Representatives to shut down the government in a doomed quest to defund President Barack Obama's crowning domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

Informally known as Obamacare, the program expands health care benefits to millions of Americans.

Cruz and many conservative Republicans see the Act as the first step towards European-style socialism in the United States.

It was up to senior Republican Senators to wave the white flag and bargain a truce with Obama's Democrats. In the end the Republicans emerged from the government shutdown with no concessions.

An exasperated John McCain, the 2008 presidential candidate, once derided Cruz and two other Tea Party lawmakers as "wacko birds on the right."

Republican luminaries such as Karl Rove and Grover Norquist have also lined up to criticize Cruz. The criticism however does not seem to faze him.

"I don't work for the party bosses in Washington. I work for the people of Texas. And I fight for them," Cruz said Sunday in an interview on CNN's State of the Union.

"America, like the world, is in an era where we worship celebrities, whether a rock star or a politician," said Susan McManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.

A Texas-raised, Harvard-educated lawyer with a Cuban father and an American mother, Cruz joined George W. Bush's legal team to argue the 2000 Florida presidential recount. He later served under Bush in the Justice Department and the US Federal Trade commission.

In 2003 he returned to Texas and was appointed solicitor general, where he served for five years, arguing many times before the US Supreme Court.

In 2011 he ran for Senate with support from the Tea Party -- anti-government, anti-tax, and pro-life and pro-gun conservatives who thrive in politically conservative Texas.

He defeated the establishment Republican party candidate, then steamrolled his Democratic opponent in the 2012 election.

Cruz may have a Hispanic last name and enjoy plenty of support in Hispanic-heavy Texas when he was elected, but he is a staunch opponent of immigration reform, a vital issue in the Hispanic community.

"He's an ideologue," said McManus. "He has a position and doesn't stride from it, doesn't apologize."

Former House majority leader Tom DeLay, a fellow Texan, has nothing but praise for Cruz.

"Out here in the real world, outside of New York and Washington, DC, these people think Ted Cruz is a hero," he recently told CNN.

"They think that those Republicans in the House are heroes. And they think that Obama is destroying this country," DeLay said.

Could he run for president? The Texas senator clearly seems to be firing up the base in preparation for an attempt to win the Republican nomination, though he sidestepped the question Sunday, telling CNN his "focus is entirely on the US Senate."

Nevertheless, "he's gambling that he can" make a serious White House bid, said McManus. He's betting on the chance "that Obamacare is going to ruin the American economy, and he will be able to say 'I told you so'."

Cruz however has a secret absent from his official website senate biography: He was born in Calgary, Canada.

As the son of an American, Cruz was entitled to US citizenship at birth. Nevertheless, his foreign birthplace could become a point of contention during his bid for president, a job restricted to natural-born citizens.

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