GREENVILLE, S.C. — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was in the throes of a diatribe over global warming before a South Carolina audience when the news began to circulate on smart phones: For the first time ever, the Texas presidential hopeful had topped a public poll in Iowa.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but it’s certainly true that going up is better than going down," he later said, reacting to the Monmouth University poll.
The campaign agenda Monday was meant to be a round of Palmetto State ring kissing. Instead, Cruz had the bounce in his step of a frontrunner. Or, at the least, a candidate with the wind at his back.
To be sure, it was a single poll in a single state. Real estate mogul Donald Trump outpaces him elsewhere and nationally. And hours after reports burst with news of his lead, CNN released its own Iowa poll that showed him trailing Trump by double digits.
But even if the Monmouth poll was straw in the wind, Cruz's incoming attacks from rivals increase by the hour — perhaps the strongest indicator of all that he is becoming more of a force to be reckoned with in the race.
Early in the day, he fielded questions from the press about President Obama's address to the country over the ISIS threat. By late Monday afternoon, all anyone wanted to talk about was the poll. Supporters greeted Cruz as a conquering hero when he entered a campaign phone banking office.
“We’re seeing a continuation of the energy and momentum that has been gradually and steadily building in Iowa and South Carolina and New Hampshire all across the country," he said.
"From the beginning the approach of this campaign was to build a campaign on a foundation of stone, not a foundation of sand," he added.
And the Texan let the criticisms, mostly from supporters of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., roll off his back. He called television spots by Rubio allies accusing him of being soft on national security “nasty false attack ads," but said the fire served as a “backhanded compliment."
Asked if he expected Trump to take aim at him given his movement in Iowa, Cruz brushed off the notion they would be at odds, reiterating his affinity for the national Republican frontrunner.
Cruz worked the crowd in the phone banking offices, then took a seat at a table of volunteers and courted an elderly woman on the phone. His father, Pastor Rafael Cruz, appeared and the two men hugged.
But the day was mostly about making his case to two powerful South Carolina Republican colleagues.
Over the last several months, freshman U.S. Sen. Tim Scott has hosted a series of question-and-answer sessions with most of the Republican presidential contenders.
With South Carolina the third state to vote on a nominee, Scott has outsized clout in the presidential contest due to geography and his status as a rising conservative star in his own right.
Outside of the Furman University building where the morning event took place, Scott for Senate signs lined the parking lot — not Cruz for President — reminding everyone this was a Tim Scott event.
“Tim and I started in the Senate at the exact same time,” Cruz said. “And this man, he and I have been side by side in fight after fight after fight after fight.”
U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican chairman of the House Benghazi Select Committee, joined Scott onstage at the event.
Cruz assured the audience that both men are “smart” and “principled” and “have backbone.”
He laced his praise of Gowdy with humor, saying that the congressman was so effective in his past life as a prosecutor that “by the end of [the event], he may get me to admit that I was at that grassy knoll.”
But the pair was not there to endorse. They vetted Cruz for the audience, asking his positions on global warming, religion in public life, terrorism, immigration and guns.
Based on interviews with audience members, many were already in the tank for Cruz when they arrived. But a few who Scott drew to the event worried that Cruz’s brashness would render him unelectable in November 2016.
South Carolina's primary is on Feb. 20, lagging behind Iowa and New Hampshire in presidential campaign interest. But it sets up the pivot to the March 1 primary, when voters in Texas and 14 other states head to polls and caucuses.
Cruz said so much at the phone bank.
“I think South Carolina is going to play a critically important part in setting that up,” he said. “Because South Carolina is just ten days before Super Tuesday.”
“You look at the states in that SEC primary: Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and the great state of Texas,” he said. “That day, I believe, is teed up to be a very, very good day for our campaign.”
Two weeks later, on March 15, another round of states will host their primaries, including North Carolina.
The phone-banking center was jammed with South Carolina supporters. But one woman traveled from Hendersonville, North Carolina — about 30 miles away — to see Cruz.
Carolyn Serrano, who organized the annual Christmas parade for her town of about 13,000 last week, said her interest was piqued after learning about the Cruz visit from members of his campaign who participated in her town’s parade.
After all, she said, it was the only campaign to show up.