For months, Ted Cruz's presidential campaign plodded along largely unscathed by his rivals for the White House, operating in relative obscurity as other candidates traded blows.
Those days, it seems, are over.
As he rises to the top tier of the GOP field, the Texas senator increasingly finds himself in the crosshairs of rivals from both parties, their allies and even influential institutions in the early voting states.
At least publicly, Cruz can hardly contain his glee at the onslaught, categorically dismissing it as proof that his campaign is gaining more traction than ever.
"Have you noticed in the last couple of weeks suddenly the volume of incoming heading in our direction has increased?" Cruz gloated Friday while campaigning in Iowa. "We've had multiple other candidates suddenly launching attacks on a daily basis."
Cruz's campaign sees the increased scrutiny as a function of his rising stock in the race. On Tuesday, he reached second place nationally in one polling average for the first time since launching his campaign. A day earlier, he took his first-ever lead in an early voting state poll, surging past billionaire Donald Trump in Iowa.
"If you’re getting attacked, you’re winning," Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler said Tuesday. "They don’t attack the people who are not winning, and we are winning."
Some of the criticism comes from GOP rivals barely registering in the polls — like U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who used a speech Thursday in Washington, D.C., to sharply raise questions about Cruz's electability given his anti-abortion and immigration stances. But other criticism is coming from more competitive corners, most prominently the campaign of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, which has aggressively moved to stoke doubts about Cruz's calling card: his ideological purity.
In an offensive that has now spanned multiple weeks, Rubio's campaign has sought to portray Cruz as inconsistent on a growing range of issues. More than anything else, though, Team Rubio has pounced on Cruz's vote earlier this year for the USA Freedom Act, which banned the bulk collection of data on Americans' phone records, among other things.
"Senator Cruz’s voting record directly contradicts his campaign rhetoric, as he has voted three times against funding the Defense Department and has voted to weaken the [National Security Agency]," Rubio spokesman Jahan Wilcox said Monday in a statement. "It doesn’t take much to see that Cruz is nothing more than your typical Washington politician who will say or do anything to get elected."
The Rubio campaign is receiving some support from a friendly outside group, American Encore, that is spending more than $200,000 to air a TV ad in Iowa that says Cruz "voted to weaken America's ability to identify and hunt down terrorists." Cruz has said he believes Iowans are "laughing off" the spot, and he defends the USA Freedom Act as striking the right balance between civil liberties and national security.
Rubio is not the only candidate who has zeroed in on Cruz's vote for the bill, which passed the Senate 67-32 in June. In an interview last week on MSNBC, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Cruz has made the country less safe, saying he "went for the easy political vote at a time when it looked like a popular thing to do." On Monday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush registered his disapproval of Cruz's support for the NSA reforms, saying he "completely" disagrees with the Texan on the issue.
Cruz woke up Tuesday morning to a fresh wave of criticism over the vote, including a new TV ad from a pro-Bush super PAC that accuses Cruz of having "voted to dramatically weaken counterterrorism surveillance." The 30-second spot from the group Right to Rise is airing as part of a more than $3.7 million buy in the first four early voting states and nationally on Fox News.
The editorial board of the largest newspaper in New Hampshire, the Union Leader, also piled on Tuesday morning, accusing Cruz of "ratcheting up his already overheated rhetoric" about fighting terrorism in response to Rubio's attacks. The editorial board, which endorsed Christie for president last month, concluded that the country does not need "another commander in chief who places political expediency ahead of national security."
Meanwhile, back at the farm
In Iowa, Cruz is getting hammered by the ethanol lobby over his unapologetic opposition to the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates an increasing level of biofuels be blended into the U.S. gasoline supply each year. It's a popular measure in the corn-growing Hawkeye State, where Cruz has held firm to his belief that the standard amounts to the federal government "picking winners and losers" in the energy marketplace.
The pro-ethanol charge against Cruz is being led by America's Renewable Future, an advocacy group that launched an offensive earlier this month accusing Cruz of favoring the oil industry — a potent force in his home state — over Iowa farmers. Cruz's campaign has countered that he opposes all energy subsidies and has asked Iowa radio stations to take down the group's ad labeling him a hypocrite, calling it "blatantly false."
The group's latest salvo came Monday, when it provided reporters with a not-so-subtle reminder that 15 out of 16 candidates have either gone on a tour of a biofuel plant or met with the group's leadership. The odd man out, according to America's Renewable Future: Texas' junior senator.
“Cruz has ignored invitation after invitation to discuss the issue," Eric Branstad, the group's state director, said in a news release. "He came to Iowa with his allegiance already established to the oil industry, not Iowans and not our caucus process."
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has joined the anti-Cruz, pro-ethanol chorus, extending his most recent swing through the state to join Branstad for a news conference Tuesday at an ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa. Santorum's campaign billed the news conference as an effort to draw attention to Cruz's "hypocrisy and unwillingness to support the 75,000 hardworking Iowans employed in the ethanol and biofuels industry."
Also on Tuesday, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina took a swipe at Cruz on renewable fuels and took issue with his alliance with Donald Trump. Her remarks came the day after the billionaire proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, an idea Cruz has said he disagrees with but has declined to criticize as unconstitutional.
"One of my competitors for this nomination, Ted Cruz, has been campaigning in Iowa a lot, and I haven’t heard him stand up for ethanol, but I also haven’t heard him stand up for the Constitution as Donald Trump is trampling it," Fiorina said in an interview on Des Moines radio.
Shooting across the aisle
Members of the opposite party have also been paying more attention to Cruz, chiefly Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton. In recent weeks, her campaign has leapt at a handful of opportunities to paint his ideas as out of the mainstream and tie the rest of the GOP field to him.
One opening arrived earlier this month during a town hall in Iowa, where Cruz went on an animated rant against Democratic claims that Republicans want to restrict access to contraceptives. A day later, Clinton's campaign issued a statement arguing Cruz's own positions contradict the idea, and took to social media to drive home the ridicule.
The Clinton campaign seized another opportunity Tuesday morning, hours before Cruz chaired a Senate subcommittee hearing that appeared geared toward debating the existence of climate change.
"Ted Cruz may be the latest candidate to use his office to stoke doubts about climate change, but virtually all the Republicans running for president share his commitment to denial and defeatism about America’s capacity to lead the world in confronting this challenge," Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta said in a statement.
The ramped-up focus on Cruz coincides with reports that the Clintons and their allies increasingly see Cruz as a likely finalist for the GOP nomination, a view not lost on the senator. While stumping Friday in Iowa, he called the Clinton campaign's criticism, combined with perceived attacks from President Barack Obama, a "powerful endorsement" in the GOP race for the White House.
Other Democratic groups have also been lining up to portray Cruz as emblematic of an out-of-touch GOP, including the Democratic National Committee, Emily's List and Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton super PAC. Asked why the group has been increasingly targeting Cruz, Correct the Record spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said Monday in a statement that "voters need to know what a Ted Cruz presidency would look like: an unstable and unrecognizable version of America."
The heat from either side of the partisan spectrum is not expected to subside anytime soon. In recent weeks, a super PAC supporting former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, one of Cruz's rivals for the GOP nomination, has disclosed paying a company in Iowa tens of thousands of dollars for a mail piece against the Texan.
On Monday, Cruz's allies were already gearing up for the next round of incoming. Less than two hours after the release of the Monmouth survey, the pro-Cruz political action committee Make DC Listen sounded the alarm in a fundraising appeal.
"This rise in the polls and strong momentum will certainly bring more attacks," John Drogin, the group's executive director, wrote to supporters. "In fact, at least two groups have already begun running ads against him. That is why Ted Cruz needs your help now more than ever."