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Cruz Bets on Tradition to Upend Trump in Iowa

Facing a nasty fight to the finish in Iowa with Donald Trump, Ted Cruz is betting big that the best way to beat a nontraditional opponent is with tradition, going places Trump won't while building a superior get-out-the-vote operation.

Presidential candidate Ted Cruz stumps in Pocahontas, Iowa during a pre-caucus tour on Jan. 7, 2016.

DES MOINES — Among the hundreds of Ted Cruz volunteers that have cycled through a dorm-like outpost here, a select group proudly calls itself the "2 Percenters." They are fans who remember when Cruz was a decisive underdog against then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, polling in single digits before pulling off an upset win in the 2012 U.S. Senate election in Texas. 

Now they are putting their lives on hold to help his presidential bid in Iowa, where Cruz has slowly risen to the top of the Republican field and emerged as the chief rival of billionaire Donald Trump. For Timothy Hoy, a Republican activist from Dallas, the Feb. 1 caucuses carry added significance: They fall almost five years after Cruz first called asking for his support in the Senate race.

"It's like a dream come true," Hoy said Thursday as he imagined Cruz's rise from long-shot candidate to commander in chief. "What a five years it's been." 

For Cruz, that dream is far from complete, but the caucuses represent a major first step — and one that acutely involves people like Hoy. Facing a nasty fight to the finish with Trump, Cruz's campaign is betting big that the best way to beat a nontraditional opponent here is with tradition, going places Trump won't while building a superior get-out-the-vote operation. 

"I think it's a very tough race and it's very close, and it's going to take a significant turnout effort," said U.S. Rep Steve King of Iowa, a national co-chair of the Cruz campaign. "At this point, the people that go to the caucus are more discerning than your regular general election voter, so that keeps me on the optimistic side of this, and I believe that Ted will pull this out. But Trump always has another trick or two along the way, and I would not discount that either." 

The idea that success in the Iowa caucuses comes down to organization is as cliche in politics as saying that the only poll that matters is Election Day. But it has taken on a heightened significance this election cycle thanks to Trump, whose footprint in Iowa has been confined to relatively brief trips for made-for-TV rallies and ensuing questions about whether his campaign can turn massive crowds into caucus goers.

Cruz does not appear to be taking any chances. He is scheduled to make more than 20 appearances across Iowa between Saturday and the following Friday, an itinerary that includes a pair of rallies with conservative media personality Glenn Beck, seven events in a single day (Tuesday) and the seventh GOP debate. 

By now, the bullet points of Cruz's ground game in Iowa are well known: He has campaign chairs in all 99 counties. He is recruiting a supportive pastor in each county. And he boasts of an "army of volunteers" in the state, its epicenter a residence in Des Moines known as "Camp Cruz," home to Hoy and others.

Cruz's campaign recently revealed a newer statistic, saying it has 1,300 captains in the state's 1,681 precincts. That means on caucus night, there will be a Cruz supporter making his case in nearly four out of five voting locations. (Not every campaign announces how many precinct captains it has, but by comparison, the winner of the 2012 caucuses, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, had 1,000.)

Little is known about Trump's Iowa field operation, and what has been reported has been anything but flattering. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but his Iowa state director, Chuck Laudner, recently assured reporters the campaign's ground game in Iowa would not disappoint — even if it is something of a mystery.  

"I know we go radio silent on those things, but there's nothing about this campaign that's like all the rest or any of those in the past," Laudner said at a Trump campaign event Tuesday in Winterset, Iowa. "We do things different and we reach out to people that normally wouldn't be caught dead at caucus events."

Brad Zaun, an Iowa state senator who has endorsed Trump, said Friday he has no doubts about the campaign's turnout operation, calling Laudner the "most brilliant caucus strategist in the state of Iowa." As Trump occasionally does at rallies, Zaun took note of the people often willing to waits hours to see the billionaire, sometimes in the freezing cold, "which tells me they're obviously diehards" who are motivated enough to also show up on caucus day. 

“I try to explain to them this is not a complicated night," Zaun said of newcomers to the caucus process, the kinds of voters who could be key to a victory for Trump in Iowa. 

Cruz has strongly suggested that Trump is not campaigning the "Iowa way" — sweating it out county-by-county, winning support one voter at a time. Cruz has driven home that contrast with his promise to visit all 99 counties, a tradition known as the Full Grassley — named after that state's senior U.S. senator — that Cruz is on the verge of completing.

Cruz regularly insists he does not view any state as a must-win, knocking rivals who put all their eggs in one basket. But Iowa is looking increasingly critical based on polling showing it's the only state where he has been able to pull within single digits of Trump — who is already treating Cruz as an afterthought there, saying at a recent rally Cruz "had his moment and he blew it."

"If you just look at history, and if you say that Iowa and New Hampshire come together, and Trump's ahead in South Carolina, that would look to be difficult to reverse that overall," King said. "History would say that, and I think the crystal ball would say, but also we can never really say in politics because lots of things happen that are unexpected."

While it was not entirely unforeseen, Trump demonstrated overnight Friday just how much he can shake up the race at a moment's notice, unleashing an attack ad depicting Cruz as weak on illegal immigration. Cruz's supporters in the Hawkeye State believe he has weathered the onslaught from his rivals, and if he's lost any ground, he will more than make it up when he returns Saturday for his final barnstorming tour. 

"The same thing that is going to win this football game in the fourth quarter is the same thing that would’ve won it in the first quarter," said Steve Deace, a conservative radio host backing Cruz. "In the end, organization is what wins Iowa — always have and always will — and no one has built a better organization than he has."

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Politics 2016 elections Ted Cruz