The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are still two weeks away, but U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is already prepping his second act in New Hampshire .
The Texas senator will embark Sunday on a bus tour of all 10 counties in the Granite State, which holds its primaries Feb. 9. The shift away from Iowa — even for just a few days — indicates the growing strength of Cruz's GOP presidential campaign.
The early contests have often been considered mutually exclusive in the winnowing process, with social conservatives focused on Iowa and more mainstream Republican hopefuls betting big on New Hampshire.
But Cruz supporters and unaligned New Hampshire Republicans say opportunity awaits him in New England after Iowa, where most expect he'll finish in first or second place.
“This is a smart time for Sen. Cruz to be in New Hampshire. Coming off a very strong debate, he should have good, energetic crowds, and should he do well in the primary, he could knock some candidates out of the race,” said New Hampshire Republican strategist Craig Stevens.
If Cruz does well in Iowa and follows strong in New Hampshire, Stevens added, “that could really catapult him into South Carolina and Super Tuesday."
Few anticipate Cruz will win New Hampshire outright — that expectation is reserved for real estate mogul Donald Trump, who tops recent New Hampshire polling by leaps and bounds.
But Cruz could place second, a moral victory before his campaign pivots to South Carolina and the rest of the South in late February and March.
As it stands, four candidates — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — are in a brawl for New Hampshire support.
But to the consternation of many establishment Republicans, the bloody fight being waged through direct mail, television ads and on digital platforms is shaping up as a circular firing squad that could leave none of them standing.
The fight is so nasty that one longtime New Hampshire Republican operative predicted there is an opening for Cruz to push past them to second place.
“They’re all after each other,” said political operative Mike Dennehy. “I think ultimately they end up tied for third place.”
Such a scenario would defy recent precedent — mainstream players U.S. Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the New Hampshire primary in the last two cycles.
But Cruz tied Kasich for second place in a recent Monmouth University poll. Several New Hampshire Republicans cautioned that poll is an outlier and insist Cruz will place third or fourth.
If the poll and Dennehy are right, a strong finish for the Texas senator in New Hampshire could deliver a serious blow to a Republican establishment desperate for any candidate who is not Trump or Cruz.
The bus tour itself is much like the campaign Cruz has run since he declared his intent in March: an exercise in endurance. In fact, it is his second trip bus trip of the month — he made a similar trek across Iowa in early January.
The tour will last five days, make 17 stops and stretch for 466 miles.
“Bus tours are an effective way to talk to a lot of people in a short amount of time,” said his New Hampshire state director, Ethan Zorfas.
It also could do much to make up for a two-month absence from the state that ended with a New Hampshire trip last Tuesday. New Hampshire Republicans say that Cruz’s absence in the state is a serious impediment but that a bus tour would do much to re-engage relationships he established earlier in the year and build out his organization during the campaign's close.
Cruz will conclude the tour on Thursday and is then all but certain to shift his time and attention to Iowa as the Feb. 1 caucuses bear down on the Republican candidates. He is likely to return to New Hampshire on Feb. 2.