WASHINGTON — Ted Cruz entered the first three Republican presidential debates amid modest expectations, a middle-of-the-pack candidate just hoping to say his piece as other candidates duked it out. And he was largely successful, delivering no-frills performances that nudged his poll numbers while rivals' fortunes gyrated.
As he prepares for prime time in Milwaukee, Texas' junior senator faces a somewhat new reality, trying to maintain his above-the-fray, slow-but-steady debate approach while dealing with growing expectations for his candidacy. That's especially true after a breakout performance in the last debate that gave him a burst of momentum unseen before in his bid for the White House.
Still, Cruz is waiting for his moment.
“Sure, expectations are probably higher, but I don’t think he’s gotten the attention he’s going to get — and he’s going to get it soon — when some of these guys fade ... but also he picks up steam," said Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based Republican strategist.
Cruz's team is patient about debates. In recent cycles, December has been the ideal time for a candidate to peak to blow into the Iowa caucuses with momentum in the new year. But the schedule is pushed back a month, and some inside the Cruz camp say the best time to take center stage is January.
Since the last debate, Cruz has benefited from a run of positive press presenting him as a possible last man standing in the GOP primary, perhaps along with the other perceived winner of the CNBC event: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Last week, Cruz called it a "plausible outcome" that the contest could come down to the two freshman senators.
While not frontrunners — billionaire Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson still have a hold on the top two spots — Cruz and Rubio emerged from the previous debate with something more valuable than a lead: momentum. Some Cruz insiders say the two men are on a collision course over immigration — likely on a debate stage, where the Texan has already said most of his GOP rivals at one point supported "amnesty."
The question is: Will that be sooner rather than later? Such an exchange would give Cruz an opening to separate Rubio from the conservative base, thanks to Rubio’s previous effort at immigration reform.
The pair will be joined on the stage Tuesday night by Carson, Trump, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Florina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
There are other considerations for Cruz as he prepares for Milwaukee. Cruz could benefit more than any other candidate from the Fox Business Channel decision to reduce the prime-time debate stage from 10 or 11 participants to eight. Nearly all of his chief rivals chasing the evangelical vote — a key constituency he is courting in Iowa — are now relegated to the undercard debate.
"When you look at who his competition is and the lane he needs to succeed in Iowa, it’s the first time he will have more of the debate stage to himself," said former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn. "[Former Arkansas Gov. Mike] Huckabee will not be there. [Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick] Santorum will not be there. [Louisiana Gov. Bobby] Jindal will not be there."
"He has the benefit of his competitors being relegated to the earlier debate," added Strawn, now an unaligned consultant.
But both campaigns are showing signs of turbulence since the last debate, and Carson and Trump were the most vocal critics of the CNBC format.
“[Cruz] has used the debates to speak to the exact share of the caucus electorate that he’s targeting," said Strawn. "He knows what the 40-50 percent Iowa caucuses electorate wants to hear, what gets them excited, what gets them out of the bed in the morning."
Cruz won plaudits for chastising CNBC hosts for running the last debate like a “cage match.” He rode the moment to a $1.1 million fundraising haul in the 22 hours after the debate, and he began pushing for moderators whose beliefs are more in line with those of Republican primary voters — playfully suggesting conservative pundits Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh.
Other hopefuls frustrated with the CNBC-hosted debate organized to demand changes to the process, but Cruz kept some distance from the brouhaha. A day before campaigns met behind closed doors to discuss the issue, Cruz would not say whether his team was sending a representative. He later joined several other candidates in declining to sign what he called a “letter of demands” that came out of the summit.
Speaking with reporters Saturday in Lubbock, Cruz expressed no qualms when asked about the media's role in specifically narrowing down the field through a series of prime-time and undercard debates. "The debates are one manifestation of the winnowing out that is playing out," he said.
The undercard debate featuring lower-tier candidates will begin on the same channel at 6 p.m. and will last an hour. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Jindal, Huckabee and Santorum will round out that debate.