SIOUX CENTER, Iowa — There are the perks: the swelling crowds spilling out the back, the luxurious-looking bus shuttling you through the snow-dusted cornfields and the media stampede trailing you everywhere.
Then there are the less desirables: the constant broadsides courtesy of rivals big and small, the logistical headaches on and off the road and, well, the media stampede trailing you everywhere you go.
Such is Ted Cruz's life as the Republican frontrunner in this critical proving ground for presidential candidates, home to the first-in-the-country caucuses that are now less than a month away. The U.S. senator from Texas, who has slowly risen to the top of the GOP field here, is currently barnstorming the state by bus, planning to hit 28 counties in six days — and show his campaign will not settle for second come Feb. 1.
The message to Iowans is simple, according to a Cruz campaign that has not shied away from ballooning expectations for a contest his rivals are increasingly talking about with more caution. "We intend to win," said Matt Schultz, who chairs Cruz's campaign in Iowa.
In drafty coffee shops and cavernous restaurants — complete with at least one cowbell-ringing admirer — Cruz is beginning to hone his closing argument to Iowans, telling them the "silly season" is over and a final choice is on the horizon.
"This is now the time that the men and women of Iowa step up and make your decisions," Cruz said as he launched the tour in Boone on Monday morning, the start of a five-stop day that ended close to midnight with the senator pouring coffee for patrons at a diner hundreds of miles later.
Playing witness to the Cruz road show are a separate coach bus for his growing Iowa press corps, a larger-than-usual entourage of traveling aides and thousands of Iowans looking to catch a glimpse of the caucus favorite. Asked Monday evening if he saw himself as the frontrunner in Iowa, Cruz played coy as he alluded to his come-from-behind victory in the 2012 Senate race.
"The only way I've ever campaigned is campaigning as the underdog, and that is certainly how I continue to view myself," Cruz told reporters before an event in Winterset.
Yet even as he downplayed his frontrunner status, Cruz spoke of a turning tide in the primary, one in which he has inherited from Trump the brunt of most attacks. "Something has changed," Cruz said again and again, with thinly veiled delight, when asked about the growing target on his back.
At stop after stop, Cruz is warning audiences that the worst is yet to come: potentially tens of millions of dollars in attack ads against him that will make it all the more important Iowans don't stay home by the fireplace on a likely frigid night come Feb. 1. Throughout the trip so far, he has largely avoided wading too deep into each attack, categorically dismissing them as a natural byproduct of his rise to the No. 1 spot in the Hawkeye State.
More than once Monday and Tuesday, Cruz seemed to revel in the negative attention, using it as a convenient foil in his anti-establishment pitch to voters. Speaking Monday afternoon in Carroll, Cruz paused to acknowledge flyers that were passed out before the event by critics of his position on ethanol, which the flyer said would kill tens of thousands of jobs in Iowa. The pro-ethanol outfit behind the materials, America's Renewable Future, has been criticizing Cruz over his opposition to the Renewable Fuel Standard, which sets a minimum amount of biofuels that must be blended into the gasoline supply.
"'Ted Cruz is dangerous!'" Cruz boomed, mockingly reading the mailer's ominous billing before adding: "You know what? To the Washington cartel, to the career politicians there that are getting fat and happy and want the gravy train to keep going, that's exactly right."
The next morning in Onawa, Cruz mused about the flammability of such literature, saying it makes "great kindling in the fireplace." The mailers, he added to scattered chuckles, "really do light up fast."
The list of anti-Cruz efforts in Iowa does not stop with the ethanol lobby. Since the holidays, Cruz has increasingly landed in the crosshairs of the past two caucus winners, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, as well as a healthy majority of other GOP rivals looking to trip up the Iowa pack leader on everything from his stance on gay marriage to his commitment to the second early voting state, New Hampshire.
"Some people are drowning right now and not catching enough air, and they're doing the only thing they know how to do, which is go negative," said Schultz, Iowa's former secretary of state who backed Santorum in the 2012 presidential election.
The source of the Cruz attacks was not always known as the bus tour got underway. In a parking lot near his stop Monday afternoon in Guthrie Center, flyers were attached to windshields of cars accusing Cruz of being "SOFT ON TERROR," — apparently due to his votes over the years against the annual defense spending bill, which Rubio has made a subject of scrutiny.
The most visible antagonist of Cruz in Iowa this week is America's Renewable Future, which has been stalking Cruz on his bus tour with a vehicle of its own, an RV planned to be parked outside all 28 of the senator's stops this week.
In an interview aboard the RV, Eric Branstad, head of America's Renewable Future, expressed hope caucusgoers would ultimately throw their support to a candidate friendlier to the ethanol cause, saying he believes as much as 40 percent of Iowans are still undecided.
"I think it's still way too early," said Branstad, son of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
Responding to a question from the audience Tuesday afternoon in Cherokee, Cruz alluded to the pro-ethanol offensive as the bidding of lobbyists and Democrats seeking to increase Iowa's dependence on the federal government. The lobbyists specifically are "trying the best they can to snooker the people of Iowa" into thinking the standard is the only way for ethanol to survive, Cruz said.
Cruz supporters seem unfazed by the wave of attacks, though they were topics of conversation as Cruz mingled with crowds. On Tuesday morning in Onawa, grain farmer Ken Carlson walked away from an exchange with Cruz satisfied with the senator's promise to not only get rid of ethanol subsidies, but all energy subsidies.
Marc Wallace, a pastor from Denison who is not yet sold on Cruz, shrugged a bit when asked to assess the effectiveness of the barbs thrown so far at the senator in Iowa.
"Most of the things that I have heard — they're easily seen as false or misleading or slanderous," Wallace said after Cruz spoke Monday afternoon in Carroll.
Cruz is set to continue the tour Wednesday with five more stops across deeply conservative northwest Iowa. By Saturday, Cruz will have gotten significantly closer to fulfilling his promise to visit all 99 counties in Iowa, leaving roughly a couple dozen to check off his list when he returns to the state later this month.