WASHINGTON — By the time Texas holds its presidential primary one month from today, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz could be on the march toward the GOP nomination. Or his campaign could be on political life support. Whatever happens in Monday's Iowa caucuses — and New Hampshire and South Carolina after that — no Republican state contest will be more decisive in Cruz's political fate than Texas.
He must win his home state on March 1, especially if real estate magnate Donald Trump runs the table in the first three primaries.
“There’s a best-case and a worst-case in Texas for Cruz, depending on how these first couple contests play out,” said GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak. “Texas could either make him or save him.”
Taking place on Super Tuesday along with contests in 11 other mostly Southern states, the Texas primary has the most delegates at stake — 155 — up to that point in the campaign. (Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina together have only 103 delegates.)
Most political experts say the question is not whether the junior U.S. senator will win Texas, but by how much.
And while the headline of the night will likely be the overall vote totals, only 44 Texas delegates to the GOP's July convention in Cleveland will be decided by statewide results.
The vast majority — 108 — will be won based on how candidates perform in each congressional district, even Democratic strongholds.
Early in the cycle, when Cruz was lost in the crowded GOP field including former Gov. Rick Perry, some expected the Texas primary could be more about carving up the state than winning it outright.
Many candidates had family or professional ties to the Lone Star State. The logic went that, while statewide campaigns weren't feasible for all candidates, some campaigns could target congressional districts that seemed the most fertile ground for the candidate's appeal.
For instance, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee might be expected to play well in rural East Texas, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in Houston's River Oaks and in Midland; and Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul could win delegates in his father's old Southeast Texas congressional seat.
And then there was Perry, who might put up a statewide fight against Cruz.
But Perry exited the race in September, and many of the other candidates with Texas roots are far weaker than they were a year ago. Cruz has consolidated much of the state behind him, locking down endorsements from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Perry.
Texas now boils down to how much Cruz can distance himself from — or catch up to — Trump.
“I’m totally confident we’ll win Texas as the landscape sits today," Patrick said in an interview Sunday in Iowa, where he was campaigning for Cruz. "The question is: What’s the margin?"
"I think by the time we get to Texas, it’s really going to be a two- to four-person race, and I think Ted will do really well."
The most telling indicators for Cruz are internal poll results that many local campaign operatives are getting back as they gear up for down ballot state legislative and congressional races.
Consultants are throwing a presidential ballot question into their surveys to get a read on the presidential matchup and the implications for their candidates.
Every consultant interviewed for this story privy to local internal polling said Cruz has a strong lead, with Trump trailing in second place and, after a sharp drop, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in third.
Surprisingly, Bush is in the low single digits in fourth place in these polls.
That's about how Bush is doing nationally, but this is Texas, after all, and two former President Bushes live in the state.
Bush leaned on the family connections early in his campaign, mainly for fundraising. One Perry source said the Bush impact was instrumental in crippling the former Texasgovernor’s fundraising apparatus.
Other candidates swept through the state on fundraising swings, notably Rubio.
Rubio’s Texas effort has been relatively dormant, but operatives on the ground said its showing signs of springing to life. The campaign touted recently several former and current state officeholders backing Rubio, including former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, state Reps. James Frank and Larry Gonzales and former state Reps. Linda Harper-Brown and Martha Wong. The campaign further confirmed to The Texas Tribune that Republican operative John Colyandro is a campaign volunteer.
Trump similarly boasted of his Texas organization in news releases, but he recently parted ways with his state director, Corbin Casteel. He quickly hired a replacement, however, and one of his highest profile spokespersons is local tea party activist Katrina Pierson. But few Republican operatives are impressed with the mogul’s Texas operation.
But consultants say all the GOP campaigns in Texas — including Cruz's — are so far underwhelming. The difference is that Cruz ran a statewide primary campaign only four years ago and kept on much of his team from that race.
Otherwise, the consensus is that the national campaigns focused on Iowa and New Hampshire because a Texas presidential organization, frankly, won’t matter if a candidate cannot survive the next two weeks.
So, more than any other candidate, Iowa weighs on Cruz.
If he defeats Trump, he will roar into New Hampshire and South Carolina later in February. If a supermajority of Texas delegates followed, that would likely put him into serious contention for the GOP nomination.
But with the race in Iowa too close to call, two lines of thinking are common about the implications for Cruz if Trump prevails.
Trump has an outsized lead in New Hampshire, and he is all but expected to win there. Many state and national consultants say they believe that if Trump puts away Iowa and New Hampshire, he could be unstoppable, regardless of how Texas Republicans vote.
Other consultants dismiss that thinking, arguing Texas is Cruz’s second chance.
“From a pure delegate standpoint it won’t be irrelevant because Texas has more delegates than all of the early states combined,” said Eric Opiela, an unaligned expert on the Republican convention process.
“He can still beat Trump in terms of the delegate count with the March 1 Super Tuesday states ... but I think it might be over for everyone else.”
Patrick concurred that the stakes are high over the next month.
"A lot's going to unfold in a very short time" between now and March 1, he said, so there could be some surprises affecting the Republican field in Texas. "It might be a showdown at high noon in Texas come March 1."
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report from Iowa.