Allies of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are plotting a multi-pronged offensive against Ted Cruz as the Republican presidential race enters the final month before the Iowa caucuses.
A pro-Huckabee super PAC is among the central players in the anti-Cruz push, which is already taking hold in mailboxes and on the radio across the Hawkeye State. The group, known as Pursuing America's Greatness, is not ruling out TV advertising as it seeks to undercut Cruz's claim of being the purest conservative in the GOP field.
"All options are on the table from our perspective," said Blain Rethmeier, a spokesman for the group. "We believe Sen. Cruz is a fraud, and we hope to make that apparent to the conservatives taking part in the process in Iowa."
Rethmeier described the anti-Cruz campaign as "easily a six-figure effort" up through the Feb. 1 caucuses, with an increased level of activity in the near future. The super PAC plans to zero in on three areas where it believes Cruz is most vulnerable: immigration, faith and ethanol.
Word of the anti-Cruz campaign comes as he prepares to blitz the state for a six-day, 36-county bus tour starting Monday. It also comes as polls show Cruz emerging as a front-runner for the caucuses, with Huckabee struggling to gain traction in a state whose nominating contest he won eight years ago.
"As Sen. Cruz blankets the state during his bus tour ... expect us to hold his feet to the fire on his statements and any mischaracterization he makes," Rethmeier said.
A Cruz spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the super PAC’s offensive. However, in an interview Monday, Cruz's Iowa state director, Bryan English, said he is confident that caucus-goers would be able to distinguish fact from fiction as the attacks on the Texas senator increase.
"I think Iowans have a unique ability to cut through the noise and ignore things that cross the line from a legitimacy perspective,” English said. "I just think Iowans have an ability to take those attack ads with a grain of salt and they go and look at their records."
The group got its start on Cruz last week, when it pounced on a report that Cruz told an attendee at a fundraiser that fighting gay marriage is not a "top-three priority" for him. A radio ad released by the super PAC warned Iowans that the episode shows there are "two Teds" running for president.
"Listen to Cruz raise money in New York City from liberals who don’t share our conservative Iowa values," a narrator says in the 30-second spot. "Remember, the next time Cruz tells you he shares your values, there are two Teds."
On immigration, the super PAC is echoing an argument made by another Cruz rival, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose campaign has aggressively worked for weeks to show the Texas senator is not as tough on border issues as he says he is. A mailer the pro-Huckabee group distributed this month claims Cruz "supports amnesty" for people in the country illegally, an accusation Cruz vehemently denies.
"Do you really know where Sen. Ted Cruz stands on illegal immigration?" the mailer asks. "Think Ted Cruz is going to get tough on illegal immigration? Think again!"
Regarding social issues, the super PAC plans to draw what Rethmeier described as "a distinction between what a social conservative is and what a 10th Amendment conservative is." That contrast is apparent in how the two candidates approach marriage, according to Huckabee allies: Cruz wants to leave it up to the states, while Huckabee's opposition to gay marriage is more categorical.
The head of the pro-Huckabee super PAC, Nick Ryan, is also involved in America's Renewable Future, a pro-ethanol nonprofit group that has been hammering Cruz for weeks over his opposition to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which sets a minimum amount of biofuels that must be blended into the gasoline supply. America's Renewable Future signaled Wednesday that it does not plan to let up on Cruz in the final month before the caucuses, promising that its "efforts will resume after the holidays."
Another outfit aligned with Ryan, the Iowa Progress Project, is already running commercials against Cruz in the Hawkeye State. In recent TV and radio spots, the nonprofit group takes on both the Texas senator and one of his most prominent supporters in Iowa, U.S. Rep. Steve King, suggesting King turned his back on Iowans by endorsing an anti-RFS candidate.
While Huckabee cannot coordinate with the super PAC supporting him under law, he has made clear he believes the group is raising legitimate questions about Cruz, at least on the the topic of marriage.
"Conservatives are being asked to ‘coalesce’ around yet another corporately-funded candidate that says something very different at a big donor fundraiser in Manhattan than at a church in Marshalltown," Huckabee said in a statement shortly after Politico released the audio of Cruz's fundraiser remarks. "Shouldn’t a candidate be expected to have authenticity and consistency, instead of having to look at a map to decide what to believe and what to say?"
In the recording published by Politico, Cruz responded no when asked if fighting gay marriage was one of his top three priorities, but went on to put it in the context of a broader goal: "defending the Constitution." The super PAC ad omits the latter part of Cruz's reply.
In an interview Sunday on Fox News, Huckabee defended the spot, saying there is "nothing selective, there's nothing deceptive" about it. Huckabee went on to repeat the super PAC's assertion that the episode has revealed Cruz as two-faced, saying candidates should not "take a different or slightly nuanced position because it would help you or hurt you with Manhattan fundraisers."