(David J. Phillip/AP)

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) encouraged conservatives to never abandon their principles and "win the argument" in a Wednesday night speech that lauded Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's recent filibuster and jabbed at Arizona Sen. John McCain's labeling of the Texas senator as a "wacko bird."

"I think 2014 has the potential to be a very, very good year at the ballot box," Cruz said in a keynote speech at Coalitions For America's Weyrich Awards Dinner, the conservative group's annual event named for founder Paul Weyrich. "But let me tell you right now, the number one way we can screw it up is if Republicans fail to stand on principle."

The freshman senator, who was elected with strong tea party support, quickly took aim at McCain, who recently called him, Paul and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) "wacko birds" in an interview. Without mentioning McCain by name, Cruz told the crowd he was happy to be among friends, or "as some might say, fellow wacko birds." He continued: "If standing for the Constitution, standing for liberty, standing for conservative values makes one a wacko bird ... then I am pleased that birds of a feather flock together."

Cruz held up Paul's recent marathon filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan's confirmation as an example of a principled stand. "What happened during those nearly 13 hours was incredible," said Cruz, who went on to detail the support Paul received as the hours went on.

The Texas senator referenced his effort to defund President Obama's health-care reform law, which fell short in the Senate on Wednesday, as another example of sticking to principle.

Opting, in trademark style, to move about the stage away from the podium throughout his speech, Cruz flashed his sense of humor with a joke about the deep federal spending cuts that recently kicked in.

"In honor of the sequester, each of your meals has been reduced by 2.4 percent," he said.

Cruz has moved quickly to establish himself as one of the Senate's most conservative members, even as he has maintained ties to the establishment wing of the party through his role as vice chairman of Senate Republicans' campaign arm.

Wednesday's speech was at times confrontational toward moderate Republicans. Being a conservative and a Republican are "often not the same thing," he said at one point.

Cruz used the second half of his speech to encourage pro-growth policies and urged Republicans to make forceful arguments for their positions.

"In 2012 we didn't win the argument," Cruz argued. "Heck, at times it seems we didn't even make the argument."

Cruz will deliver another major speech on Saturday when he addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual conservative confab held in the Washington area.