OTTUMWA, Iowa — He’s packing seven campaign events into a single day. His allies are blanketing the airwaves with attack ads. And he’s emphasizing more than ever to Iowans they have a special role in democracy — a very special role.
It's all relatively normal activity with less than a week until the first-in-the-nation caucuses, especially for a top-tier candidate like Ted Cruz. Yet the U.S. senator from Texas and some of his allies are increasingly signaling they see more urgency than usual in prevailing in the Hawkeye State, where a win by Republican rival Donald Trump could send the billionaire sailing through the first few early voting contests — and maybe to the nomination.
"If Donald wins Iowa, he right now has a substantial lead in New Hampshire. If he went on to win New Hampshire as well, there is a very good chance he could be unstoppable and be our nominee," Cruz said at a private meeting of pastors Monday in Iowa. "And the next seven days in Iowa will determine whether or not that happens."
"So even if you’re thinking about another candidate, the simple reality is there’s only one campaign that can beat Trump in this state," added Cruz, whose remarks were recorded and published by CBN News.
As he works through his final tour of Iowa before the caucuses, Cruz is literally counting down the hours, updating reporters and supporters at every stop as he bills the race as a "dead heat" between himself and Trump. His message to Iowans: Millions of Americans are counting on you to make the right choice — and perhaps halt Trump's march to the nomination before it can begin.
At the same time, Cruz and his allies are relishing confrontation with Trump at every turn. On Tuesday, a pro-Cruz super PAC unveiled an ad saying Trump would cut bad deals with Democrats as president, bringing to at least seven the number of commercials currently running against the billionaire by Cruz supporters in the early voting states. And Cruz himself egged on Trump Tuesday night, when he quickly responded to the billionaire's decision to skip the upcoming GOP debate by challenging him to a one-on-one debate on conservative talk radio.
"The fact that Donald is now afraid to appear on the debate stage, that he doesn't want his record questioned — I think that that reflects a lack of respect for the men and women of Iowa," Cruz told conservative radio host Mark Levin, who said he would be happy to host the Cruz-Trump debate.
In an interview last week, U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a national co-chair of Cruz's campaign, said history suggests it would be "difficult to reverse" Trump's momentum if he wins Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Accompanying Cruz on Tuesday across the Hawkeye State, King and other surrogates pled with Iowans to view set aside their preferences for any candidates not named Cruz or Trump and make their pick.
"When you go to caucus on Monday night, it’s a binary decision now,” King said Tuesday afternoon in Bloomfield. The candidates "that are down further in the line in the polls — a vote for them is not going to be a vote that decides this. It'll be a vote that doesn't go for a constitutional conservative like Ted Cruz. It’s come to the place now where you’re going to make a decision whether you’re going to support Donald Trump or whether you’re going to support Ted Cruz.”
Cruz allies and supporters are anything but unanimous on the idea that a Trump victory in the Hawkeye State could cement his path to the nomination. They are quick to point out that Cruz's campaign has the money and organization to go the distance, even if he faces setbacks in the first round of early voting contests.
“I think you can make that argument for anybody — whoever wins Iowa can win the whole thing,” said Matt Schultz, the chair of Cruz’s campaign in Iowa. Reminded of Trump’s comfortable leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Schultz added, “Right now, that’s true, but as you’ll see, things can change at the last minute in politics.”
Cruz himself brushed off the idea Tuesday afternoon while speaking with reporters in Albia, offering a less-candid assessment than the one he provided to pastors behind closed doors. Asked where he could beat Trump if not in Iowa, the senator delivered a stock response emphasizing he is running a national campaign that does not center on any one state.
A win by Trump in Iowa would affect a number of scenarios Cruz has laid out for his path to the nomination, perhaps starting with his prediction that the race could end in his favor by March 31. If Trump is victorious in Iowa then New Hampshire, the rubber match that Cruz has imagined in South Carolina would never come to fruition. And while Cruz is well organized and has strong support in the southern states that vote March 1, it would be put to the test by the momentum Trump would carry if he ran the table in the first few early voting states.
Cruz's focus for now, though, is on Iowa. He is holding 30 public events this week in 22 counties there, an itinerary that included a whirlwind tour of seven cities and towns Tuesday. On Monday, the day of the caucuses, Cruz is expected to complete the Full Grassley, a tradition named after the state's senior senator that entails visiting all 99 counties in Iowa.
Cruz’s campaign has been eager to share the details of his ground game in the state, providing a contrast with Trump, whose field operation remains one of the biggest mysteries in the lead-up to the caucuses. On Tuesday, the Cruz campaign announced a slew of statistics related to its get-out-the-vote efforts in Iowa, including that it has 1,573 precinct captains — an impressive number that means Cruz will have a supporter making the case for him in more than 9 in 10 precincts across the state.
Cruz and Trump are also duking it out over endorsements, particularly as the billionaire tries to cut into the senator's deep support in the evangelical community. Trump on Tuesday afternoon rolled out the endorsement of Jerry Falwell, the son of the late televangelist and president of Liberty University, where Cruz chose to announce his candidacy nine months ago. Cruz countered hours later with the endorsement of another evangelical leader: Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council.
"This is no normal election," Perkins said in a statement. "This election is about the very survival of our Constitution and our republic."
That it is crunch time in Iowa was evident Monday afternoon in Independence, where an undecided voter gave Cruz one minute to make his case to her. Afterward, the woman, Alexis Buhr, said Cruz won her over. She had also been considering U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Cruz’s elevator pitch “definitely made an impact,” said Buhr, a small business owner from Oelwein who teared up later in Cruz's speech. “I’m looking for somebody that will fight, and I know he will fight.”
The heightened urgency does not appear to be lost on the candidate, who had to correct himself in an interview with conservative radio host Dana Loesch — who also endorsed Cruz Tuesday — as his bus rolled across northeastern Iowa.
“We are 150 hours from the Iowa caucuses,” Cruz said before briefly pausing. “In fact, I just saw the clock. It is now 149 hours.”