Updated 3:24 p.m. ET, 3/9/2014
(CNN) – They were both popular speakers who blasted government overreach at the Conservative Political Action Conference, but Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz found themselves at odds this weekend over foreign policy and political strategy.
Both considered potential 2016 presidential contenders with strong tea party support, the two normally line up on a host of issues. But perhaps they’re now trying to draw some distinctions as they wade deeper into the next presidential cycle and gain more attention on the national stage.
Trying not to ‘drag people down’
Paul, R-Kentucky, said on “Fox News Sunday” he’s focused on broadening the GOP, a message he’s been aggressively pushing for months. But he doesn’t plan on doing that by criticizing those in his own party.
Cruz, for example, is known for taking on the GOP establishment. He made comments last week that generated rebuke from Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Bob Dole - two unsuccessful GOP presidential nominees that Cruz invoked in his speech at CPAC.
"Of course, all of us remember President Dole and President McCain and President Romney. Now look, those are good men, they're decent men. But when you don't stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don't stand for principle, Democrats celebrate," Cruz said in his speech.
Asked on Fox about Cruz’s remarks, Paul said, “Everybody has their own style,” but added, “I don't spend a lot of time trying to drag people down.”
"Can we do things different to get the party bigger? There's always ways we can get bigger, particularly when we don't win,” he continued. “But I don't spend any time sort of trying to criticize others in the party, because I realize the party has to be bigger, not smaller.”
Foreign policy—Reagan style
On another Sunday show, ABC’s “This Week,” Cruz said he considers Paul a friend but stands in contrast with the libertarian-leaning senator in one area.
“I don't agree with him on foreign policy,” he said. “I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world. And I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did.”
As the crisis in Ukraine was unfolding, Paul told The Washington Post last month that Republicans are too often trying to “tweak Russia.”
"Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era, they want to tweak Russia all the time, and I don't think that's a good idea,” he said.
The comment caused a stir among more hawkish members of the party, who painted it as another example where Paul is an outlier when it comes to national security and foreign policy.
As tensions escalated a few days later, Paul issued a more stern statement, saying “Russian intervention in Ukraine would be dangerous for both nations, and for the rest of the world.”
But in Cruz’s interview that aired Sunday, he argued for a more forceful approach with Russia, invoking a pivotal point in the Cold War.
“When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire,’ when he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ those words changed the course of history,” he said. “The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”
While Paul was not responding to Cruz’s interview, the senator from Kentucky went on to defend himself against critics who say he’s too soft on the issue. He also used Reagan as an example.
“I'm a great believer in Ronald Reagan. I'm a great believer in a strong national defense. In fact, what Ronald Reagan said in about one sentence sums up … a lot of what I believe. He said to our potential adversary …’Don't mistake our reluctance for war for a lack of resolve.’ People knew that with Ronald Reagan. They still need to know that with the United States.”
Paul added a line of attack that was repeatedly used at CPAC last week, arguing Russia’s aggression is in part due to a weak Obama administration.
“And part of the problem is, I think, this President hasn't projected enough strength and hasn't shown a priority to the national defense,” he said. “That is something that, were I in charge, I would.”
Stage getting set for 2016?
Paul won 31% of the closely-watched CPAC presidential straw poll vote. It was the second straight year the lawmaker topped the poll at the annual gathering.
"My family's talking about it," Paul said Sunday, referring to a White House bid. He added that for now, he is focused on other issues, like suing President Obama.
His closest competitor in the straw poll, Cruz, came in at a distant second place with just 11%.
CPAC is the largest annual gathering of conservative leaders and activists and is a must-attend cattle call for GOP presidential hopefuls looking to pass the right-wing litmus test.
Polling indicates no real frontrunner among the potential GOP contenders so far. The next race for the White House officially doesn't get under way until after November's midterm election, and it's fair to say presidential surveys this early are often heavily influenced by name recognition.
Paul is suing the Obama administration over the National Security Agency's collection of phone metadata, a surveillance program brought to light last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
But at the same time he's filing a lawsuit, Paul is working with Attorney General Eric Holder. The two recently had lunch to discuss mandatory jail sentences for nonviolent drug offenders–a meal which brought Paul some criticism from the right.
But to those critics, Paul said they shouldn't worry he's getting too cozy with Holder.
When he left the meeting, Paul said, he told Holder, "I'll see you in court."