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Cruz Moves to Seize His Moment in Iowa

With two months until Iowa's first-in-the-country caucuses, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz finds his presidential bid riding a wave of momentum in the Hawkeye State.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, left, speaks at a campaign event on Nov. 28, 2015, in Iowa as U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, far right, looks on.

LENOX, Iowa — On Black Friday, Ted Cruz went out and bought a new pair of boots, knowing he will be spending a good chunk of the next two months in a place more wintry than his humid hometown of Houston. 

"I surrendered to Iowa's snow and ice," Texas' junior U.S. senator admitted to a group of voters here Saturday afternoon, lifting his pant leg to reveal his purchase. 

The new footwear could not come at a more useful time. With two months until its first-in-the-country caucuses, Cruz finds his presidential bid riding a wave of momentum in the Hawkeye State, propelled by a visceral appeal to voters disgusted with Washington D.C. and a surgical approach to consolidating conservative support in the otherwise volatile GOP race for the White House.  

His surge here — punctuated by a poll last week that had him rocketing to second place  — comes as no surprise in his camp. Campaign staff and supporters say he has been plugging away in Iowa for months, largely out of view from a national media training its attention on shinier objects. 

"You can only spend 18 hours a day, six days a week organizing a grassroots campaign and have it stay under the radar for so long," said Bryan English, the Iowa state director of Cruz's campaign. "I knew this was going to happen sooner or later, and you don’t necessarily get to pick the time that suddenly you have critical mass and everybody says, ‘Oh, wow, look at what’s coming together over here,’ but that’s definitely where we’re at.”

While some campaigns would be wary of the heightened expectations — or caught unprepared — Cruz's appears to be leaning into his glide path here, more than ready for his close-up. That was evident as Cruz on Monday finished a three-day, 14-stop tour of the state that drew raucous receptions and overflow crowds, some in cities and towns whose populations total only three digits.

"I'm pretty sure this is breaking a Guinness World Record," Cruz joked as he walked into a gas-station convenience store shortly after 10 p.m. Saturday, finding a crowd of several dozen spilling into the aisles and snaking around the coffee machines in the back. 

Cruz's Iowa moment has not dawned overnight. His swing through the state Saturday was his sixth trip to Iowa in seven consecutive weeks. His team has quietly ramped up from earlier this year, when it had just one paid staffer. And his anti-establishment message has appeared to find an increasingly captive audience among Iowans furious with Washington but not ready to take a chance on political neophytes Ben Carson and Donald Trump.

As he crisscrossed the state, Cruz offered plenty for the anti-Washington crowd, deploying line after line about his outsider status within even his own party. During a town hall Saturday night inside a high school cafeteria in Lamoni, Cruz paused to acknowledge the large red letters on the wall spelling "Concessions," joking that the room was named after "Republican leadership in Washington."  

For good measure, he brought along another congressional antagonist — U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler, one of six GOP members of the Texas delegation who have endorsed Cruz for president. Gohmert regularly reminded audiences Saturday and Sunday of his friendship with Iowa Congressman Steve King, an influential figure in conservative circles who threw his support behind Cruz earlier this month. 

While Cruz has been trekking across Iowa for months, the recent trip had the feel of a campaign looking to show its candidate's work ethic could match the hype surrounding him. On Saturday alone, Cruz hit seven cities and towns over a 12-hour period, ending the day at 11 p.m. saying a prayer with a local pastor in the parking lot of a Casey's General Store. The next morning, while his GOP rivals were making the rounds on Sunday shows or continuing their holiday breaks from the campaign trail, Cruz was working the pews at Christian Life Assembly of God, a church in Des Moines. 

"The senator is tireless," English said later that evening, standing beside an SUV waiting to whisk Cruz away from his 11th stop of the trip, another packed drop-in at a general store in a dot-on-the-map town. "This guy just keeps going." 

Waiting for Cruz on Saturday night in Chariton, Cruz supporter Chris Downey suggested the senator's commitment to visiting all 99 counties — a tradition known as the Full Grassley, named after the state's senior U.S. senator — could set him apart from the other top-tier candidates in the state. By the end of the trip Monday evening, Cruz was believed to have crossed roughly half of the counties off his list.

"It's an intense expectation, but it forces the candidate to go into places that are pretty small potatoes by most standards," Downey said. "And yeah, you don't see Donald Trump doing that." 

Speaking with reporters throughout the trip, Cruz repeatedly denied that there was trouble in paradise between himself and Trump, taking the media to task for trying to gin up a rift in what has become a reliable routine. At a town hall Monday morning in Coralville, he boasted of resisting "daily invitations" by the reporters to attack Trump, going as far to impersonate an eager journalist promising to set up a "cage match" between the two candidates. 

Pressed by a member of the audience about why he has yet to call out Trump for a string of inflammatory statements, Cruz held firm but reiterated his belief he will ultimately prevail in the race for the White House.

"Let me be very clear: I don't believe Donald Trump is going to be our nominee, I don't believe he's going to be our president and I actually think the men and women in this room have something powerful to say about that," Cruz said. "It's one of the reasons I love the state of Iowa because in Iowa, y'all take politics seriously."

(The member of the audience, a retired professor from Iowa City named Scott McNabb, was not satisfied by Cruz's answer to the question. "He dodged it completely," said McNabb, a Democrat.)

The front-running billionaire real estate developer came up again Saturday afternoon in Creston, where Cruz supporter Scott McClain made reference to a Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday that showed Cruz trailing Trump by just two percentage points.

"You're drafting behind the leader," McLain told Cruz as he went table to table inside the Windrow Restaurant. "That's just the right spot."

Cruz, a movie buff, responded with a reference to a maneuver in stock-car racing — popularized by a Will Ferrell comedy — in which the second-place driver slingshots ahead of the first-place driver. 

"You've seen 'Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby'?" Cruz told McLain, exuding the game-on mentality that seemed to follow him everywhere this weekend. "They call it the shake and bake."

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