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Rush Limbaugh loves Ted Cruz's candidacy. That's great news for Jeb Bush.

Ted Cruz at CPAC, February 2015
Ted Cruz at CPAC, February 2015
Alex Wong / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The reactions to Ted Cruz's presidential bid from the political cognoscenti have been, generally, quite dismissive. Pundit after pundit, including many conservatives, have said Cruz has no chance of winning. He's even faced a tough reception on Fox News, where Megyn Kelly grilled him about whether his candidacy should be taken seriously.

Yet Cruz's campaign launch has gotten rave reviews from a medium that could matter quite a lot in the GOP primaries: conservative talk radio.

Rush Limbaugh led the charge, effusively praising Cruz on Monday and calling his announcement speech "flat-out amazing." Hosts of other shows, like Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham, similarly praised Cruz and defended him against his critics. The name "Ronald Reagan" came up again and again.

Limbaugh, in particular, went beyond mere praise. His remarks tried to address two of the biggest problems Cruz has in winning over conservative voters — how to stick out in the crowded field, and whether he is electable.

But though Cruz's talk radio cheering section is clearly good news for the Texas senator, in a larger sense the candidate who may truly benefit could be Jeb Bush.

Limbaugh didn't just praise Cruz — he argued Cruz was the voice of authentic conservatism

Roger Ailes produced the Rush Limbaugh Show, and introduced Limbaugh to George H. W. Bush.

Rush Limbaugh delivers a speech in Michigan. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

In a very crowded GOP field, a great many candidates will hope to position themselves as the "true conservative." Cruz needs to distinguish himself somehow, and his poll position and popularity right now show he hasn't done so yet. "He clearly hasn't entered the race as the favorite of conservatives, and there isn't much reason to assume he will eventually become the favorite," the Upshot's Nate Cohn argues.

Yet this week, the Federalist's Ben Domenech made the case that there is a reason. "Ted Cruz matches up with the activist base better than any other significant candidate in a long time," Domenech wrote. "I don’t think people outside of that base really understand how powerful Cruz’s appeal is to the populist energized conservative voter."

So it's important that Limbaugh went out of his way to praise Cruz as a uniquely effective exemplar of conservatism. He said, "We finally now have, on display, someone who can cheerfully, confidently, happily articulate conservatism in a charismatic, positive way." Later, he said Cruz "might be the smartest man in Congress" — which specifically counters the view, widespread among DC elites of both parties, that Cruz has been tactically and strategically inept.

Limbaugh's first caller that day expressed similar enthusiasm: "I want to take you back to the 2012 primary season, when you and many others, but especially you, were lamenting the fact that there was no one that could articulate conservatism properly, that there seemed to be no voice of conservatism. And I would posit that Ted Cruz, 'cause I've watched him since 2012, he is that person." The caller added, "This is the guy we were lamenting and wishing for in 2012."

"Well, not just 2012," Limbaugh responded. The point? Cruz is special in a way his rivals for the conservative mantle are not, a dazzlingly brilliant, once-in-a-generation figure. If enough conservatives come to be persuaded this is true, it obviously would be great news for Cruz's campaign.

Limbaugh repeated Cruz's favorite argument: that people doubted Reagan's electability too


President Ronald Reagan. (Dirck Halstead/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A second major problem for Cruz is the perception that he's too extreme to win a general election — after two terms years of Obama, conservatives want to win. So Limbaugh repeated one of Cruz's favorite talking points in response to this — that his doubters would have similarly impeded Ronald Reagan's rise.

"Even among conservative media, dare I say this, even among conservative media there are those who think he's an outlier, a second-tier candidate who does not have a snowball's chance of getting the nomination," Limbaugh said. "This is exactly how Reagan was reacted to."

Another popular talk radio host, Mark Levin, similarly brought up the Reagan comparison on Tuesday, in a rant criticizing Fox News for being too tough on Cruz:

LEVIN: "I had my favorite cable network on, and a lot of the people on were trashing Ted Cruz. ‘Not enough experience, he's too young, too conservative, needs a bigger tent, he's down in the polls.' These people are neophytes. Neophytes! They have never fought in Republican primaries for a conservative candidate. They don't even take the time to learn the history of this country or the Republican Party. And I'm convinced that if Reagan were alive today or Gerald Ford were alive today, and if we were doing a rerun of 1975-76, Reagan would be trashed all over our favorite cable channel. ... They want Jeb Bush."

Laura Ingraham, too, sneered at the idea that Jeb Bush was a more "adult" candidate than Ted Cruz. She argued that in comparison to Bush, Cruz "presents more of a traditionalist point of view and, I think, overall more of a Reaganesque view of the Republican Party."

This is exactly what needs to happen for Cruz right now — but it might be great news for Jeb Bush, too

Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush, in 2012. (Larry Marano/WireImage/Getty)

Though estimates of the size of Limbaugh's audience vary wildly, it's generally agreed that his talk radio program is the best-rated in the country. Millions of listeners heard his effusive praise of Cruz.

So with a talk radio cheering section, the issue of immigration to distinguish himself from the field, and high-profile debates for him to show off his verbal dexterity, it's easy to imagine how Cruz could become a major force in the GOP primary.

Yet it remains quite difficult to imagine him winning, for one huge reason — GOP elites despise him and will work extremely hard to try to stop him from getting the nomination.

Cruz has beaten the establishment's candidate before, in the primary and runoff for his Senate seat. But replicating that nationwide will be far more difficult. He'll have to win more than two elections. He'll have to compete in many states with much less conservative electorates than Texas. And there will be many preferable alternatives to him that the establishment could coalesce around in a "Stop Cruz" effort.

This means that in a sense, talk radio's enthusiasm for Cruz could actually be great for current frontrunner Jeb Bush. Every hour that Limbaugh gushes over Cruz is an hour in which he's not gushing over Scott Walker, who hopes to win the support of conservatives.

Though Walker may not be the first choice of the GOP establishment, he appears to be an acceptable enough candidate to them. That means if Walker wins the support of conservatives and Bush stumbles, a scorched-earth "Stop Walker" campaign from the GOP doesn't seem likely.

But if Bush's main rival turns out to be Ted Cruz, the former Florida governor will have the full force of GOP elites on his side. And based on past precedent, that's a battle we should expect Bush to win.

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