Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) won’t say if he is running for president, but he is acting like a contender. The New Hampshire Journal reports on his remarks as he begins a weekend trip in the Granite State. In contrast to his rhetoric of only a few months ago, he is showing some magnanimity toward fellow Republicans:

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during the inaugural Freedom Summit meeting for conservative speakers in Manchester, New Hampshire April 12, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).  (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

“By any measure there are five, 10 or even 15 people who seem to be thinking about running and I would encourage all of them to stand up and lead. I can think of no better outcome than a year-and-a-half from now to have an abundance of people standing up and saying that there is a better path, that we can get back to economic growth and prosperity.” . . . In February, after the Senate, with GOP support, approved an increase in the national debt ceiling, Cruz said, “Today’s vote is yet another example that establishment politicians from both parties are simply not listening to the American people.”

But Cruz now appears to have softened his rhetoric a bit. He told the Journal he agrees with Ronald Reagan’s principle: “What do you call someone who you agree with 80 percent of the time? That person is a friend and we should welcome everyone with a multitude of views,” he said. “But at the same time it is important for Republicans to stand for principle.  The only way we win elections nationally is to stand for conservative principles and to provide a clear alternative” to the Democrats.

That is a kinder, gentler Cruz — certainly less intent on bashing other Republicans. Moreover, unlike Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), to whom he has been compared, he is sounding a true Reaganite message on foreign policy:

“We are seeing the direct consequences of the administration’s weakness and misguided strategy of leading from behind. As America has receded from its leadership in the world, into that vacuum has stepped nations such as Russia and Iran and China, and the world has become a far more dangerous place.”

Cruz said he was encouraged by the “bipartisan cooperation” that resulted in unanimous passage in the Senate and House of his bill to forbid Iranian Ambassador to the UN Hamid Aboutalebi, who participated in the 1979 hostage-taking of Americans in Tehran, from setting foot on U.S. soil. The bill was signed into law last Friday by President Obama.

“It was a moment of clarity and of bipartisan unity when it came to the virulent anti-Americanism of the government of Iran,” Cruz said.

It is not clear he’d want to risk tarnishing his image so early in his career with a potential presidential campaign loss (as fellow Texan, Gov. Rick Perry, experienced in 2012). If he stands back and other tea party favorites run and wash out, Cruz may be the leader of the base left standing in the Senate, where he can continue his fiery oratory. He certainly would have hurdles if he ran, including lack of experience (albeit more than Rand Paul), skepticism from moderates and business groups, and concerns about electability.

If Cruz does run, however, he may make it doubly hard for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to gain traction. Unlike Paul, Cruz has not gone to the left of President Obama and therefore remains a credible opponent to go up against Hillary Clinton. He doesn’t carry the Paul family baggage, nor does he have a string of wacky conspiratorial comments to explain away. If very conservative voters are looking for someone who won’t be so libertarian on drugs or hot-button social issues and won’t be “out there” on foreign policy, logically they’d prefer Cruz. That includes a large segment of social conservatives who are concerned not only about social issues, but also about Israel, the Middle East and America’s place in the world. And, of course, for anti-immigration reform voters, Cruz has shown no inclination like Paul to look to legalization. (Both nevertheless voted no on the Senate immigration bill.) In sum, he’d offer many hard-right voters a less risky option than Paul.

No doubt Cruz would have his own problems carving out a niche. So far he relies on broad statements of principle without laying out a concrete, affirmative agenda. (“No” works in the Senate minority but not as a presidential candidate.) Other strong social conservatives, including Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, could do very well in Iowa, cutting into his base of support. His biggest problem may be Perry, who is every bit as conservative as he but has an impressive record of governance, a national network of donors and the experience of having run before. (Few candidates understand how valuable that can be.)

It is easier, then, to see how Cruz would doom Rand Paul’s efforts than it is to see how Cruz would assemble a winning coalition. That said, he has become a credible voice on foreign policy and would add, if nothing else, unpredictability and rhetorical fireworks to the race. If he wants to be the leader of the base and president someday, he might feel compelled to stay where the spotlight will be — on the GOP presidential scrum. And if along the way he knocks a potential rival for the affection of the base down a few pegs, well all the better, I suppose.