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Cruz's provocative speech on Day 3 of Republican convention sparks a renewed war over conservatism

Ted Cruz was booed off stage during the Republican National Convention's third night on July 20 2016.

With his refusal to endorse Donald Trump at Trump's own Republican convention, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Wednesday fired the freshest shots yet in a war to define the party. It is one that will persist through November and beyond, regardless of whether Trump wins the White House.

Cruz's provocative advice that voters follow their conscience -- implicitly saying they were free not to follow their partisan allegiance — was an astonishing turn in what had been, to that point, a convention that was muddled in its message.

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It was also a continuation of a years-long battle to determine how to define Republican and conservative at a time when the nation's demographic changes are moving voters further from the party's current moorings. That fight has been building in fits and starts since the departure from office of President Reagan.

Trump certainly has demonstrated the strength of his candidacy here, officially winning the nomination on Tuesday night. His speech to the delegates on Thursday looms as a huge moment for him and for the party he wants to lead. For now, however, his efforts to portray the Republican Party as unified have been sundered.

Cruz's speech had the feel of Ronald Reagan's famous 1964 address, "A Time for Choosing," delivered in late October on behalf of Republican nominee Barry Goldwater. As a document laying out Reagan's political philosophy, it served as the demarcation between the party's past and future, and it helped lead to his win as California governor two years later.

Even before the speech, Cruz had traveled around Cleveland as if holding a parallel convention, meeting with delegates who had supported his unsuccessful candidacy. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the third of the final three candidates in the race, did the same, both men essentially questioning the legitimacy of Trump's standing. Kasich, the home state governor, refused even to attend the convention.

Discontent was evident too in those missing from the convention in protest of Trump's nomination, a list that included senators, legislators and party donors.

If Cruz represented a defiant stand for one army of dissidents, the other side of the GOP war was also in attendance Wednesday. Vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana, delivered a well-crafted speech in defense of Trump's priorities and his leadership.

Before Cruz's address, another candidate defeated by Trump argued that the time for unity has come.

"After a long and spirited primary," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said, "the time for fighting each other is over."

But many powerful forces are pushing Republicans toward disunity.

Trump is a divisive figure, distant from many Republicans in policies and repugnant to others because of his rhetoric. And there is also the matter of ambition: Several Republicans, including Cruz and Rubio, saw themselves as the future of the Republican Party before they were dispatched by Trump. Losing did not dampen their desires.

As profoundly, they are navigating changes in the party's direction at a time of huge voter tumult, when experience and other characteristics that used to matter are often spurned.

Even outside of the presidential campaign, Republicans have been factionalized and feuding for decades, since Reagan's unifying tenure ended in 1989.

His successor, George Herbert Walker Bush, was not a Western conservative but one of the last vestiges of a now nearly extinct group, the more moderate Northeastern Republican. He lost after one term, in some part because of a revolt by conservatives angry after he broke his vow not to raise taxes.

Generally, Republicans have been split according to their choice of primary issues: social conservatives, whose ranks have swelled with the growing evangelical vote, interested in issues like abortion and gay marriage, as well as support for Israel; fiscal conservatives, worried about taxes and economic policy; and national security conservatives, concerned about military strength and international domination.

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The internal battling was more muted when Republicans held the White House under George W. Bush –although conservatives rose to quash his effort to win reform of the immigration system. It has been in high fervor since.

After the 2012 election, Republican leaders implored this year's band of candidates to broaden their views and try to attract women, younger voters and minority Americans, without whose support the party would wither.

But the 2016 election has done nothing to clarify what the party's conservatism means. Voters spurned their traditional political silos and arrayed themselves around the outsider-insider axis. They went for a showman candidate whose views alarmed all three components of the nation's conservative movement.

Social conservatives were put off by Trump's past support for abortion rights and less-than-rigid opposition to gay marriage and LGBT protections. Fiscal conservatives wailed that his limited proposals—tax cuts combined with huge infrastructure spending and opposition to Social Security cuts—were unsustainable. Defense conservatives gasped at the range of his foreign policy — sometimes interventionist and at others isolationist.

But he won the nomination on celebrity, audacity, appeals to worried white blue-collar voters and castigations of Latinos, Muslims and other groups.

The lines of the future Republican Party will not fully be developed until Trump's fate has been determined. If he wins and works to push the goals of all sides of the party, he will mute some of the dismay and discussion.  Already, in his handling of the party platform and his selection of Pence as his running mate, Trump has demonstrated flexibility and some ability to placate warring factions.

If he loses, however, the night of the general election will mark the beginning of a full-scale battle over the party's fate and the fate of many of the would-be candidates inside and outside this convention's walls.

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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