Ted Cruz is back on the hunt for another big-name endorsement in Iowa.
After securing the backing of U.S. Rep. Steve King on Monday, Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas, is entering the homestretch of his quest to win over social conservative kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats — an effort that comes to a critical juncture Friday night. That's when Cruz joins six other Republican presidential candidates for a roundtable discussion in Des Moines hosted by The Family Leader, an influential organization helmed by Vander Plaats.
The Presidential Family Forum, as the event is called, could go a long way toward sealing the deal with Vander Plaats, who has signaled he could make an endorsement in the coming weeks.
"He is a very influential evangelical," said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University. "His endorsement, added to congressman Steve King's blessing, could be a game changer in Iowa."
Like with King's endorsement, though, Cruz is fending off speculation that he already has it sewn up. Cruz, the son of a preacher, is aggressively courting evangelicals in Iowa and already has the support of some people close to Vander Plaats. Among them: Bryan English, a former aide to Vander Plaats who is leading Cruz's campaign in the Hawkeye State.
Vander Plaats has not been shy about pushing back on the buzz that he has already settled on Cruz, especially after a campaign official was quoted last month saying it would be a "stunner" if he did not pick the senator. In a statement provided Thursday by The Family Leader, Vander Plaats sought to tamp down on the speculation, saying the group is "not even close to a unified choice for endorsement."
"For weeks, I've been fielding calls from media and from campaigns on unfounded rumors that we are prepared to endorse Ted Cruz,” Vander Plaats said. "So let me make it clear: Neither I nor the The Family Leader plans any endorsement prior to the Nov. 20 Presidential Family Forum. Nor has Ted Cruz or any candidate yet secured a 'favorite' status."
Cruz and his campaign like to say he is working hard to win the support of every conservative in Iowa, not just major figures such as Vander Plaats. After accompanying King on his annual pheasant hunt last month, Cruz struck a deferential note when asked about the rumors of a Family Leader endorsement.
"Oh, The Family Leader is a phenomenal organization," Cruz told reporters. "I like and respect Bob Vander Plaats a great deal. It will be their decision what to do. Obviously I would love to have Bob's support, would love to have the Family Leader's support. I suspect that's true for every candidate in the race, and we're all trying to earn that support."
When exactly that support could arrive is unknown. Vander Plaats expects to personally endorse a candidate between Thanksgiving and Christmas — well before the Feb. 1 caucuses in Iowa. The Family Leader board is expected to meet during the same period and try to come up with its own consensus choice.
Unlike Vander Plaats, the board could pass on an endorsement altogether, like it did ahead of the 2012 caucuses. That did not stop Vander Plaats and Family Leader Vice President Chuck Hurley from throwing their support behind former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who went on to win the nominating contest in Iowa riding a late wave of momentum.
The nod from Vander Plaats would continue to bolster Cruz's case to the faithful in the Hawkeye State, where more than 40 percent of likely GOP caucusgoers recently identified themselves as evangelical Christians. It would also further ratchet up expectations for Cruz in a state where his campaign has been careful not to get too far ahead of itself.
Those expectations were already creeping up Monday, when King held a news conference in Des Moines and announced his endorsement of Cruz, praising him as the "answer to my prayers." King is scheduled to campaign with Cruz on Friday in Iowa, co-headlining two town halls in Sioux City and Harlan before the Family Leader forum in Des Moines.
Cruz has moved quickly to promote King's endorsement as a sign conservatives are coalescing around his campaign, especially in the first-in-the-country caucus state.
"Steve King this week endorsed my campaign, saying, 'Ted is the strongest conservative and he has proven he will stand for our principles and fight over and over again,'" Cruz told conservative radio host Glenn Beck on Thursday. "That was a very meaningful moment in our campaign."