Ted Cruz isn’t just a gathering threat to Marco Rubio anymore; he’s also positioning himself  to suck the air out of Rand Paul’s rise.

In Iowa Friday, both rabble-rousing senators from Texas and Kentucky addressed a gathering of hundreds of pastors and Iowa social conservative activists — and it’s Cruz who left the downtown Des Moines Marriott ballroom room buzzing.

Jamie Johnson, an Iowa GOP state central committeeman who supported Rick Santorum in the 2012 caucuses, said the reaction to the two tea party provocateurs was stark.

Cruz received three separate standing ovations during his remarks — once for his anti-abortion and anti-gay rights lines, another for his commitment to defunding Obamacare and a third for a zinger about the Benghazi attack, according to Johnson. Paul, by contrast, lifted the crowd to its feet once, when he said the U.S. should not send a penny more to any nation burning the U.S. flag.

“Ted Cruz hit a home run.  He spoke with a deep sense of conviction and a driving sense of urgency.  He touched on every theme that is important to the faith and family values community,” said Johnson.  ”Rand Paul failed to move the audience to any level of enthusiasm. People were nodding off, and many appeared quite bored.  It was almost as if Rand Paul was suffering from jet-lag or anemia or disinterest.”

The six-year-old forum — dubbed the Iowa Renewal Project — is designed to spur more evangelicals into political action by elevating conservative leaders poised to defeat liberal policy initiatives.  Currently, about 40 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers identify themselves as evangelicals, according to The Des Moines Register.

While their influence is sometimes overhyped, the evangelical/social conservative voting bloc will continue to be a key constituency for Republican candidates to court in the Hawkeye State.  That’s why Cruz and Paul made the jaunt in the first place.

Paul, who is better-known in Iowa due to his father, his longer Senate tenure and his prior visits to the state, has made a concerted effort to court the evangelical voters his dad could never relate to.  But it was Cruz, the pugnacious fresh face who also hosted a state GOP fundraiser, who spoke their language.  It was booming, evocative and Bible-thumping, and it left an impression.

“Conservatives need to get on their hands and knees and pray to protect marriage,” said Cruz, in what Robert Costa dubbed his best-received line of the speech.

Costa, the influential crack reporter for the conservative National Review who was on the ground for the event, also seemed to be taken by the reaction to Cruz.

He called the enthusiasm for the freshman “a little startling.”

“Cruz, a man who’s spent less than 24 hrs in IA in his 42 years, is quite suddenly a favorite of Iowa pastors,” Costa tweeted after Cruz’s remarks. “Cruz is working the room right now at the Marriott. It seems like all of the heavy hitters in Iowa GOP politics are swooning. Almost surreal.”

Paul isn’t the most dynamic speaker to begin with.  He tends to meander through anecdotes instead of punching through soundbites. Behind a podium, he at times lacks the fervor of the anti-establishment force he’s come to be.  Rand talks, he doesn’t project.  He doesn’t seem to care to seize the energy of the crowd or want the self-assuring jolt that is produced from applause.

“He has no command-presence,” said Johnson, who has seen Paul speak five times in person.  ”He comes across as an analyst, not a leader.”

For Cruz, it’s just the opposite.  His pacing, annunciation and emphasis are all calibrated for maximum impact.  He shuns the podium, instead choosing to wander the stage and therefore connect with more eyeballs in the crowd and draw energy from them.  Every third sentence is a punch line, giving editors a plethora of headlines to choose from.  And it goes without saying he’s fiery, unwavering and therefore captivating.

So sticking Paul before Cruz — or after for that matter — is an unfair fight.

How much that matters ultimately is debatable, but if it does factor anywhere, it’s Iowa, where conservatives have rewarded rhetorically gifted pols the last two times around. (Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee).

As TheRUN2016/cygnal poll showed, Cruz starts with a deficit to Paul in the Hawkeye State, but its these types of events that generate the buzz and word-of-mouth that can begin to change the still forming state of play.

“These folks were instrumental in Gov. Huckabee’s 2007-2008 success,” asserted Eric Woolson, a former Huckabee adviser.

But as The Iowa Republican’s Craig Robinson notes, who speaks at this pastors pow-wow is hardly predictive of the eventual Iowa victor. Especially this far out.

“In 2007, the group invited Mitt Romney, but not Mike Huckabee.  Huckabee won Iowa.  In 2011, the group invited Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich, but not Rick Santorum.  Santorum won Iowa,” Robinson said.  ”It’s obviously not a bias towards the most socially conservative candidates since we can see the track record.”

But if Cruz were to run, he may qualify as the most socially conservative contender in the field.  Couple that with his stirring communication skills makes for one commanding candidacy.