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Inside the Republican civil war: Meet the generals

A small band of conservative Republicans is leading a guerrilla campaign to defund the Affordable Care Act even if it means a government shutdown (or worse, de
Ted Cruz, Anti-Obamacare Rally At US Capitol - Benjy Sarlin - 09/23/2013
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during the \"Exempt America from Obamacare\" rally, on Capitol Hill, September 10, 2013 in Washington, DC.

A small band of conservative Republicans is leading a guerrilla campaign to defund the Affordable Care Act even if it means a government shutdown (or worse, default). But they've run up against a vicious counterattack along the way. Not from Democrats, who are enjoying the show with a big bucket of popcorn, but from fellow Republicans who think they're on a political suicide mission.

This isn't just a fight between the elites, either. A new poll by CNBC finds that while 54% of Republicans who identify as "Tea Party" favor shutting down the government in pursuit of defunding Obamacare, only 36% of other Republicans support the idea. Despite their shared hatred of the ACA, the latest tactical fight has finally pushed conservatives and moderates to dissolve the political bands that have connected them.

Now that the dogs of war are loose, you're going to want to know the generals--especially come presidential primary season.

Team Shutdown

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)

What's his deal?

Cruz, more than any other Republican, is the face of the defund-or-bust movement. He's also drawn the sharpest attacks from his fellow Republicans, who claim he's rallying the Tea Party against moderates in pursuit of a hopeless cause. At first, most of the criticism came from fellow senators. But lately House Republicans (and a platoon of anonymous aides ) have taken the front lines.

According to his House critics, Cruz is trying to avoid blame by demanding they hold the line against Obamacare even after he's admitted he can't find the votes in the Senate to do the same. Cruz's latest op-ed retort, "The Path To Victory," includes a whole set of new demands for the House in the likely event his Senate push fails, so expect plenty of similar attacks this week.

Is he running for president?

He's been in the Senate for only eight months, but it's a good bet he runs in 2016.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

What's his deal?

Paul's brand of libertarianism is in vogue within the GOP right now and he boosted his profile last month by leading the conservative opposition to an attack on Syria. As the son of legendary House gadfly and perennial presidential candidate Ron Paul, he's already used to fighting for lost causes; defunding Obamacare's a logical step. While he and Cruz have presented a united front against the ACA, Paul's been a bit more forthcoming about their actual odds of success.

"I'm acknowledging we can't probably defeat or get rid of Obamacare," he told Fox News on Saturday. "But by starting with our position of not funding it, maybe we get to a position where we make it less bad."

Is he running for president?

Paul is openly discussing a 2016 bid. Odds are it won't be his last one.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)

What's his deal?

Marco Rubio is arguably the most popular politician to emerge from the Tea Party movement after defeating then-Republican Charlie Crist to win his Senate seat in 2010. But he ticked off some populist conservatives by co-sponsoring the Senate's immigration bill. The health care fight is an opportunity to get in their good graces again.

Is he running for president?

He's considered a top tier 2016 contender if he runs. And now he won't have to worry about the two guys above him on this list calling him out as weak on Obamacare.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)

What's his deal?

Lee is another popular, well-spoken Tea Party senator from the class of 2010. He's not a fan of Obamacare and he, Paul, Cruz, and Rubio often get along well on these kinds of things.

Is he running for president?

Probably not. You never know.

Jim DeMint

What's his deal?

As a senator, Jim DeMint helped launch the careers of various Tea Party lawmakers by backing them in competitive primaries against more "establishment" Republicans. This year, he left the Senate to continue the fight at the conservative Heritage Institute. Under his leadership, Heritage has become an ideological enforcer, threatening to hand out demerits to lawmakers who break ranks on key votes.

Is he running for president?

He hasn't said no.

Sarah Palin

What's her deal?

There's a fight between Tea Party protesters and establishment Republicans? Then Palin's probably throwing bombs on the Internet.

"Ignore the peanut gallery pundits," Palin wrote on Breitbart over the weekend. "They’ve written my political obituary so many times, I’m practically Lazarus. Now they’re trying to destroy Ted Cruz. Good luck with that, you weasels."

Is she running for president?

Define "running." She likes when people talk about her running for things, at least. For example, she hinted in the Breitbart op-ed that she might run for Senate in Alaska next year.

Team Simmer-Down-Already

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)

What's his deal? 

John McCain pretty much hated Cruz and Paul already, dubbing them "wacko birds" over their perceived lack of respect for national security and Senate decorum.  An unnamed McCain aide put it even more bluntly in a GQ profile of the Texas Senator this week: "He f***ing hates Cruz." The feeling's mutual--Cruz said in the same article that he was embarrassed voting for McCain in 2008. So perhaps it's not surprising that McCain, who was in office when the party lost the 1995 shutdown fight, has been a leading critic of the defund-at-all-costs movement.

“In the United States Senate, we will not repeal, or defund, Obamacare," he said on CNN last week. "We will not. And to think we can is not rational."

Is he running for president?

Not again. But Cruz surely must tempt him sometimes.

Karl Rove

What's his deal?

As a leading Republican fundraiser and strategist, Rove's primary concern is expanding the party. He's convinced the Tea Party's "self-defeating" obsession with blocking Obama's agenda, from immigration to the budget, is going to cost them votes down the line.

"Going down that road would strengthen the president while alienating independents. It is an ill-conceived tactic, and Republicans should reject it," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

Is he running for president?

No, he's running other people for president.

Rep. Peter King (R-NY)

What's his deal?

Another old-school hawk from the McCain school, Congressman King hasn't minced words when it comes to Cruz and the shutdown, either. After voting for a continuing resolution in the House that would defund Obamacare, King said he hoped it would show Cruz was a "fraud" when he failed to garner enough votes to do the same.

"Today's vote is definitely a signal that we have to take a more realistic and practical approach, that we can't be going off on these false missions that Ted Cruz wants us to go on," King told reporters last week.

Is he running for president?

Yep. And while he has no chance of winning, he seems to think a run would be worth it just to rebut Paul and Cruz in the debates.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK)

What's his deal?

Ever since Obama and the Democrats romped to victory in 2012, the Oklahoma Congressman has urged the Tea Party wing of the GOP to take a more pragmatic approach to governance.

"In this case you’re actually putting the gun to your own head," he told The New York Times earlier this month. "You’re basically saying, do what I want or I’ll shoot."

Is he running for president?

Probably not.

Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI)

What's his deal?

Duffy led the charge against Cruz from the right after the senator indicated Majority Leader Harry Reid had the votes to fund the government without defunding Obamacare. Plenty of House Republicans followed Duffy over the breach in attacking the pro-defund senators on similar grounds.

"All summer long as these ads have been running, as they’ve been holding town halls and raising money, we’ve kept a lid on our anger in the House as we were the punching bag and bullied by some of these Senate conservatives,” Duffy said on Morning Joe last week. “What I see happening now is people coming out and calling them out for the hypocrisy of these big, tough conservatives who know how to fight but will never get in the ring.”

Is he running for president?

Not likely. He's got the looks, though.