FORT DODGE, Iowa — Ted Cruz had hardly finished his first town hall of a three-day blitz through Iowa before it came up: A man in the front row, sounding somewhat perplexed, asked the U.S. senator how he plans to overcome the top two candidates in the GOP presidential field, neither of whom have ever held elected office.
Those candidates — retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and billionaire Donald Trump — have actually helped Cruz's campaign, the senator from Texas answered, because they have made the race about "who will stand up to Washington."
“When it comes to where the presidential race is right now, I’m actually very, very optimistic,” Cruz said Wednesday during a stop in Kalona, where another man asked Cruz about his position in the polls relative to Carson and Trump. “And I’m optimistic because to win it takes three things: It takes message, grassroots and money.”
With an anti-establishment mood gripping the GOP race for the White House, Cruz believes those factors will help him ultimately emerge as not only the leading outsider candidate but the GOP nominee. But with Carson and Trump lodged at the top of the polls, Cruz's campaign is signaling its readiness for a long-haul effort to prove he is the true vessel of anti-Washington sentiment.
"Our campaign requires lots of patience because we know the kind of candidate we have, we know the organization we have, we know the fundraising we have, and we know what our plan is," said Rick Tyler, a spokesman for the campaign. "We’re confident we can win by executing our strategy and executing a campaign over time and either outlasting our opponents or getting more votes from those who remain.”
On message, Cruz believes he is in lockstep with the GOP base on its most important issues, perhaps most notably immigration — Trump’s calling card. On organization, Cruz’s campaign claims a county chair in all 171 counties in the first four early voting states, a feat no other campaign has achieved. And on money, Cruz has raised $27.5 million, $12.2 million of it during the most recent quarter — the third-highest total for the period revealed so far in the GOP field.
“Right now, if we did nothing else, we are not only organized but we’re funded through March 1 and probably close to March 15,” Tyler said, alluding to the delegate-rich clusters of primaries set for those dates.
Trailing Carson and Trump
While Cruz has ticked upward in national polls, he still regularly trails Carson and Trump by double digits. In a Fox News poll the Cruz campaign was promoting this week, Cruz garnered 10 percent support, behind Carson at 23 percent and Trump at 24 percent.
Cruz’s team nonetheless believes he is hitting his hottest streak since he jumped into the race in March as the first major Republican candidate. His campaign has been circulating video of a “Meet the Press” segment in which host Chuck Todd predicted “the Cruz moment is coming,” calling the senator a “plausible potential frontrunner” for primary voters clearly looking for an anti-Washington crusader. “People are taking notice,” national political director Mark Campbell wrote in a recent email to supporters sharing the video.
At least one person very close to the senator believes he’s being seriously overlooked: his wife. Closing out her husband’s stop Tuesday in Keokuk, Heidi Cruz told supporters the “media will try everything they can to not talk about our campaign, to not cover our events.” Cruz ducked a question the next day about whether he felt he was an undervalued stock, saying he does not measure his campaign’s success by the attention the mainstream media pays it.
At the end of the day, Cruz’s supporters contend, he will emerge as the leading anti-establishment candidate because he is the only one who has taken on Washington from within.
That cannot be said of Carson or Trump, according to one of Cruz’s biggest boosters in the Texas Legislature, state Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville. “We’d be taking a chance because they haven’t done anything to prove anything they’re saying, whereas Ted Cruz has done that,” Burton said.
Still, Cruz’s three years in the Senate, no matter how rebellious, can be construed as a liability.
“It’s really hard to see him as a true outsider,” said Terry Giles, a Houston attorney and Carson confidante.
Crisscrossing Iowa this week, Cruz showed he has plenty to offer to those drawn to Carson and Trump by those candidates' rants against political correctness and feckless Republicans. In Rockwell City, Cruz joked that 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney took it so easy on Obama in their third debate that “Romney actually walked over and kissed Obama on the lips.” In Kalona, Cruz said he would like to take the Dodd-Frank financial regulation “out in the back alley and put two bullets in the back of its head.”
And at each stop, he started by jokingly floating conservative radio talker Mark Levin as the next speaker of the U.S. House. Cruz followed the recommendation with a full-throated impression of the nasally-voiced pundit imploring Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to stiffen up his spine.
The generous helpings of red meat are not new to Cruz, whose supporters view him as the "original outsider." Eventually, they say, that message will become clear to those currently drawn to other anti-establishment candidates.
That patience has extended to Donald Trump, whom Cruz has refused to criticize in a perceived effort to ultimately scoop up his supporters. Last week, there appeared to be a crack in the truce when Cruz told a New York radio host Trump would not be the GOP nominee and the “lion’s share” of the billionaire’s backers would ultimately support the senator. Trump, a self-described “counterpuncher,” downplayed Cruz’s assessment — “He’s gotta say that,” the mogul told reporters Saturday in Georgia — and Cruz on Monday tsk-tsked reporters for blowing his comments out of proportion.
“When I say I believe we’re going to win, a bunch of media folks write the story, ‘Cruz turns on Trump,’” Cruz told reporters in Fort Dodge. “He apparently believes he’s going to win, I believe I’m going to win, and the voters are going to decide which one of us is right.”
The Cruz-Trump alliance has nonetheless been a point of fascination, if not frustration, for rival campaigns who’ve seen their candidate’s poll numbers tumble after taking on Trump. In typically colorful fashion, Cruz regularly describes himself as the sole White House hopeful who has not “taken a two-by-four” to the mogul.
The Cruz campaign is happy to see the billionaire apparently bringing new people into the political process, though it is uncertain the thousands of people filling stadiums to see Trump are reliable primary voters. Cruz’s team nonetheless views them as potential supporters.
"Keep Doing What He's Doing"
Tom Jensen, director of the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling, said it is hard to know for sure where Trump backers would go if he left the contest. Right now, Carson is their second choice in most polls — third choices are seldom solicited — but Cruz has relatively high favorability ratings among backers of both the billionaire and retired neurosurgeon. “He’s sort of maintaining an OK amount of support, and I think he is positioned if — if — Carson and Trump fall apart” to seize their backers, Jensen said of Cruz.
Unsurprisingly, Cruz’s rivals are not so sure of his overall strategy, which more broadly relies on consolidating conservative support from three GOP constituencies: members of the Tea Party, evangelicals and libertarians. He recently received fierce pushback from the campaign of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., which accused him of trying to create the illusion he was making inroads with the liberty movement.
In recent weeks, Carson’s rise has challenged Cruz’s theory that he will be the consensus choice of conservatives looking for a candidate with the resources to go the distance. Carson’s campaign not only outraised Cruz’s by $8 million in the third quarter but also did it with the help of more donations, 600,000 since Carson entered the race to Cruz’s 362,000.
Bill Bird, the retiree who questioned Cruz in Fort Dodge, said he still finds Cruz to be a better outsider candidate because one can “check the record.”
“I think that’s going to wear a little old with people,” Bird said of the apparent appeal of Carson and Trump. Cruz will have his moment in due time, Bird added. He just “needs to keep doing what he’s doing.”