Via Raw Story, the buzziest line from the morning session of opening day, received tepidly by an audience that’s there precisely because they want to spend a few days gorging on ideological red meat. This is like standing up in a crowded steakhouse and imploring people to consider the health benefits of vegetarianism. Good argument, wrong venue.

Who’s this directed at and who’s it aimed at benefiting? One obvious target is Trump. Another is Ben Carson, the man who preceded Lee on stage this morning. Both of them are positioning themselves as right-wing populists, the sort of 2016 niche that’s coveted by — ta da — Mike Lee’s frequent ally Ted Cruz. He’s the main beneficiary of this, I assume. even though Cruz himself is often derided by big media as being more interested in rhetorical bombthrowing and shutdown grandstanding than in crafting policy. Come to think of it, the likely 2016er who’s built a reputation for policy reform to rival Lee’s is actually Marco Rubio, who’s partnering with Lee on a tax-reform plan. Hmmm. Is Lee a closet Rubio backer? That’d be a major surprise given his alignment in the Senate with tea partiers like Cruz and Rand Paul.

This might also be a shot at Jeb Bush, hinting at righties not to be seduced by Jeb’s inevitable insistence during his Q&A at CPAC tomorrow that he too is Severely Conservative apart from immigration and Common Core. I doubt it, though. At one point Lee also said this:

“The conservative candidate who ignores moderates is as misguided as the moderate candidate who ignores conservatives,” he said. “The candidate we both want can attract both without alienating either.”

I don’t think he’s directing this at Jeb. I think this is just Lee being who he is — a genuine principled conservative and serious legislator who has no taste for grandstanding, and who cringes at the thought of the movement that sent him, Cruz, and Rubio to the Senate flirting with vacant populists like Trump. He’s trying to repair the tea-party brand with quality control.