DES MOINES, Iowa — Was he ever really the frontrunner here?
Heading into Monday night's Iowa caucuses, few doubt U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz will finish strong — how strong is another question.
After emerging as the GOP presidential race leader in Iowa last month, the Texan has had to navigate an increasingly rocky landscape in Iowa, fraught with all the risks and rewards of occupying the No. 1 spot. The gauntlet has taken a toll on Cruz, who now trails billionaire Donald Trump in public polling.
In the final hours before the caucuses — which begin at 7 p.m. — Cruz and his allies are asking supporters to put the race in perspective, recalling how small of a chance Cruz was given when he launched his campaign 10 months ago. Now, they say, Cruz is poised for a top-tier finish in the first early voting state.
"Any showing at that level would have been unheard of by most people beside those who supported Ted," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the chairman of Cruz's campaign in Texas, said in an interview Sunday. "He's going to do very well and he's going to be at the top or near the top."
Campaign officials are confident Cruz will win Monday — even "outside the margin of error," as campaign manager Jeff Roe recently put it — but they dispute the idea he was ever the prohibitive frontrunner in Iowa. After the seventh Republican debate Thursday in Des Moines, Roe quibbled with a reporter's suggestion the candidate was "safely" leading the GOP field in Iowa as recently as three weeks ago.
"We were never as high as some had us," Roe said. "We were never as low as some are showing now. This has been a tight race for quite some time."
Cruz's critics — ranging from his presidential rivals to members of the GOP establishment in Iowa, including Gov. Terry Branstad — have painted a different picture, one of a bona fide frontrunner whose lead slipped away as Iowans got a closer look at his record. They have nonetheless been happy to ratchet up pressure on Cruz to place first Monday — especially U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has long trailed Cruz in a distant third but has been ticking up in some recent polls.
"I mean, Ted Cruz is clearly the frontrunner going into the night," Rubio said Sunday in an interview on CBS. "And he has 10,000 volunteers on the ground. He has spent an exorbitant amount of time here, tremendous amount of time here. And has gotten every endorsement he wanted."
Rubio's assessment is at odds with a key poll released Saturday that gave Trump the edge heading into the caucuses. The survey, done by Bloomberg Politics and the Des Moines Register, found Trump beating Cruz by 5 points, 28 percent to 23 percent.
Asked to explain how he plans to make up the ground Monday, Cruz told reporters on Saturday that he was "thrilled" with where his campaign is right now. Yet he did not let it go unmentioned that he has been the subject of the most attacks in Iowa — a potential explanation if he falls short Monday. For now, though, Cruz is wielding the scrutiny as a badge of honor.
“I’d be a lot more worried right now if nobody was attacking me," Cruz said. "Then that would be concerning — what do they know what we don’t?”
Cruz on Sunday wound down his final tour of Iowa with a series of rallies during which he hammered the points of a stump speech now going on six months old. At a nighttime rally in Des Moines, his final stop of the day, Cruz delivered his closing argument one last time to a capacity crowd, warning them against falling for candidates whose records do not match their rhetoric.
"We can't be burned again," he said. "The stakes are too high."
Cruz has one last item to check off his to-do list before the caucuses: complete the Full Grassley, or the tradition of going to all 99 counties in Iowa that is named after the state's senior senator. Cruz is expected to do just that at 1 p.m. Monday, when he visits Greene County in the northwestern part of the state.
No other candidate with a shot at winning Iowa has done the Full Grassley, a point Cruz has been happy to make while suggesting rivals like Trump and Rubio have given short shrift to the state. Yet Cruz's commitment to the Full Grassley — an arduous, time-consuming endeavor — has also added to the perception, fair or not, that he is staking his hopes on Iowa.
After a rally Sunday evening in this city near the Iowa-Illinois border, local nurse Michael Angelo said he was not entirely familiar with Cruz but had heard he is a leading candidate in Iowa. Angelo left the event still undecided but said Cruz's values seemed in line with Iowans'.
Asked if he thinks Cruz will be a top-tier finisher Monday, Angelo said: "I certainly hope he is."