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Ted Cruz: What you need to know about this ambitious, headline-grabbing senator

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) walks towards the Senate Chamber after the weekly Senate Republican Policy Committee luncheon September 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Sen. Alex Wong / Getty Images

Ted Cruz is a hero to conservative activists, and a brazenly ambitious – and arrogant – political neophyte to his detractors.

He’s a man of contradictions: a self-styled populist educated at Princeton and Harvard, a Cuban-American who was a stalwart opponent of immigration reform, a man born in Canada who harbors thinly-veiled hopes of running for the U.S. presidency.

But after his marathon, 21-hour speech decrying Obamacare on the Senate floor, his status as an effective headline-grabber is more established than ever, despite what his critics might say.

As this fall’s fiscal battles heat up, here are some essential things to know about the junior senator from Texas.

He’s got White House ambitions

Cruz’s stalwart conservatism finds its roots in his upbringing in Canada and Texas. He was born in Calgary, Alberta, to an American mother and a Cuban father who had fled the Castro regime and was involved in the boom-and-bust oil business.

His Canadian birthplace has won guffaws from many Democrats who decried conservative theories about President Barack Obama’s birthplace; Cruz said this year he would renounce any potential claim to Canadian citizenship.

According to the Constitution, the president must be a “natural born” U.S. citizen. But the term “natural born” is not defined by the document. 

Cruz believes he’s qualified. “My mother was born in Wilmington, Delaware. She’s a U.S. citizen, so I’m a U.S. citizen,” he told ABC News in July. “I’m not going to engage in a legal debate. The facts are clear. I can tell you where I was born and who my parents were. And then as a legal matter, others can worry about that. I’m not going to engage.”

In the face of this, the freshman senator hasn’t waited to build speculation about his presidential ambitions.

A May 1 piece in the National Review Online started to detail Cruz’s plans to wage a bid for the GOP nomination in 2016, and the senator has traveled in the months since to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – the three states which traditionally host the first nominating contests in every presidential election.

He’s someone to watch in the ongoing fiscal debates

Cruz has already made his imprint in the debate over funding the government, having led the effort to defund Obamacare in exchange for the passage of a continuing resolution. He raised his profile by speaking for hours on end against Obama, though his remarks didn’t formally constitute a filibuster.

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Cruz is trying to establish himself as the foremost opponent of Obamacare on Capitol Hill, thereby endearing himself to the Republican base and its core conservatives. In the end, he won’t have succeeded in stopping health care reform, but he will have boosted his national profile – especially among potential 2016 presidential primary voters.

Cruz has telegraphed his intention to wage such a speech for days, and launched into his non-filibuster even after it became clear that fellow Republicans wouldn’t vote with him to block legislation from moving forward. Whether Cruz redoubles his efforts and turns his efforts back toward pressuring House Republicans remains to be seen.

He’s sparred with members of his own party

Cruz’s brashness has made waves on Capitol Hill – not just among Democrats, but among Republicans, as well.

During confirmation hearings for former Chuck Hagel’s nomination to become secretary of Defense, Cruz pilloried Hagel – a Vietnam War veteran – and suggested the former Republican senator regarded the United States as an international “bully,” among other accusations.

Cruz’s behavior earned him a rebuke from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who suggested his colleague from Texas had crossed a line in his pointed questioning of Hagel. McCain and Cruz have tangled in the months since, as the 2008 presidential nominee referred to Cruz and other upstart conservative lawmakers as “wacko birds.”

Perhaps no effort by Cruz has been more identifiable, though, than his bid to link defunding health care reform to averting a government shutdown. The senator traveled the country throughout August to ratchet up pressure on fellow Republicans, rather than rival Democrats.

That effort has won Cruz adoring fans in the conservative movement, though many other elected Republicans have bristled at their colleague for making this fall’s debates over government spending and the debt ceiling more politically difficult for the GOP. (Republican New York Rep. Peter King said last week he hoped the ploy would expose Cruz as a “fraud.”)

“The real question is whether Senate Republicans are going to unite and stand alongside House Republicans,” he said Monday evening on Fox News.

He’s got a reputation for being self-impressed

Cruz’s antics as a champion debater (and feisty conservative) at Princeton are perhaps the most well-documented portion of his upbringing.

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A variety of profiles have characterized Cruz as brilliant, but also exceedingly self-impressed. He was a champion college debater, and this year acknowledged losing thousands in a poker game his freshman years. (That came to light in a piece published by the Daily Beast, which also embarrassingly chronicled a young Cruz’s escapades to entice co-eds in a paisley bathrobe.)

Cruz continued onto Harvard Law School, where he also excelled – and also rubbed some classmates the wrong way. A fellow student at Harvard told GQ in a profile published this week that Cruz founded a study group limited to graduates of either Harvard, Princeton or Yale.

He’s proven himself to be formidable (so far)

After law school, Cruz won prestigious federal clerkships, including one at the Supreme Court with then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He briefly entered private practice afterward before joining George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000 as a policy adviser. After Bush was elected, Cruz took a job at the Federal Trade Commission.

Cruz returned to Texas in 2003 after being named the state’s solicitor general. During his tenure, he argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. (The GQ profile noted that Cruz keeps an oil painting of himself making his first argument before the high court in his office; the Texas senator explained it helps keep him “grounded.”)

After a brief stint in the private sector, Cruz returned to public life to challenge Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for the Republican Senate nomination in Texas in 2012. Cruz harnessed the Tea Party wave that helped fuel a number of conservative insurgent candidates’ victories over establishment-favored Republicans in the primary campaigns of both 2010 and 2012.

Cruz bested his Democratic challenger in ruby-red Texas by 16 points, though he slightly under-performed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who beat Obama in Texas by a bit of a wider margin last fall.