The latest national Republican presidential poll shows Donald Trump continuing to hold a sizable lead, but state surveys give a better sense of how the race may unfold when the first votes are cast early next year. In Iowa, site of the first nominating caucus, Senator Ted Cruz has pulled ahead of Trump (he’s up by 10 points). In New Hampshire, which goes next, Senator Marco Rubio holds the second spot, according to recent surveys. If the numbers hold, that sets up a battle between Cruz and Rubio for the role of Trump’s alternative, or for the nomination itself if Trump flames out. Either way, among the questions that could tip votes to one or the other is who would be the greater protector of gun rights.

Cruz heads into the fight with the endorsement of Gun Owners of America (GOA), “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington” — a group that prides itself on being decidedly more extreme than the National Rifle Association (NRA). The group officially backed him in September, particularly early in the overall contest. (It noted that he was the only candidate who completed its questionnaire on the Second Amendment.) During a presidential primary debate later that month, Cruz gave the group a non-sequitur shoutout, a moment that Alan Schroeder, a debate historian, told my colleague Alex Yablon was unprecedented. Traditionally, candidates have avoided aligning themselves with fanatical groups on national television.

Cruz has credited GOA with helping him win his Senate primary in 2012, and would seem to have the support of the group and its 300,000 members locked up. But Larry Pratt, GOA’s executive director, is both a man of ironclad principles and a veteran political operator. In a conversation in November, he surprised me by giving Rubio his stamp of approval.

“He’s certainly very strong on the Second Amendment,” Pratt said. “We could definitely tolerate him if he was elected.”

Pratt’s statement was made all the more unexpected by the fact that Rubio has not always been known as a true believer on gun rights. Marion Hammer, the infamous NRA lobbyist, once told the Tampa Bay Times that Rubio “was a big disappointment to us” during his tenure as speaker of the Florida House. She added, “He talked the talk, but he didn’t walk the walk.” In 2008, the NRA briefly took away his A rating, and a recent presidential survey revealed his only firearm is a .357 Taurus revolver, a model with known quality issues that brands him as a relative neophyte to gun aficionados.

Yet perhaps more importantly, Rubio has always been seen an establishment candidate, unlike the Tea Party’s beloved Texas firebrand. And GOA, one of the most controversial gun lobbies, is a distinctly outsider institution. In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, GOA helped kill the Manchin-Toomey proposals to expand background checks, spreading the false idea that the bill would create a national firearms registry. Pratt has also shared speaking bills with members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he’s a “pivotal figure” in America’s “militia movement.”

That Pratt is comfortable with Rubio as the potential nominee demonstrates a change in the Republican Party of today: when it comes to gun rights, the extreme and mainstream points of view are virtually indistinguishable. So why didn’t GOA back him? According to Pratt, what cost the candidate the group’s endorsement was not his stance on guns. Instead, it was his stance on immigration, which does not involve deporting millions of people. Pratt, at 73, has been leading GOA for almost 40 years, and he still positions himself as someone who plays the long game.

“Most immigrants are Democrats,” Pratt says. “That’s not good for gun rights. My advice to him is he should stay away from the issue.”

[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]