MANCHESTER, N.H. — In his final pitch to voters ahead of the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz compared the state's current media circus to the plague.
"We're in the final sprint now," Cruz told a packed VFW hall. "New Hampshire, a little over 24 hours from now, the primary will be over. Suddenly, this quadrennial pestilence that descends upon this state will migrate south."
It was a joke, of course. And Cruz was in a good mood as he campaigned down to the wire, because it's more fun in politics to be on offense than defense.
Real estate magnate Donald Trump is widely expected to finish first here, and Cruz is part of a five-man pileup for second place. But what separates him from his leading rivals for that runner-up spot — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — is urgency.
Those other candidates need to show a strong performance to assert their viability. With his Iowa win a week ago, Cruz has already proved his campaign's mettle.
And so, Tuesday evening, Cruz is expected to finish anywhere between second and sixth place.
The race is so scrambled here that, as a snowstorm blew in Monday, prompting concerns that it could depress turnout, it wasn't even clear whom that would hurt or help.
Even so, Cruz urged the audience at a Tea Party event to brave the elements.
"At this point, it's all about turnout. That's the whole game. Turnout. Particularly, if it's snowing outside. If it keeps snowing, it'll be easier not to show up and vote tomorrow."
A CNN/WMUR poll released Monday showed Cruz trailing Trump and Rubio. Compared to Iowa's Republicans, Cruz is less of a natural fit for the more moderate New Hampshire, and as such, he's mitigated much of his evangelical pitch in his stump speeches here.
The biggest unknown ahead of Tuesday's primary is how much Rubio and the three other men will split up the establishment vote.
Meanwhile, Cruz is betting on the voters who take the state's "Live Free or Die" motto to heart to pull him to a strong finish.
"One of the developments we're seeing in particular is libertarians uniting behind our campaign," he told reporters in Raymond.
Cruz insisted he is running "vigorously" here. But no matter how he finishes Tuesday night, it is in the south where he has spent outsized time and resources over the last year.
And it is the coming primaries in South Carolina, Texas, and other states where second or sixth place just won't be good enough.
Cruz said so much at a stop in Raymond.
"I hope and do believe we'll do well here," Cruz said. "But we've also got an incredible team on the ground in South Carolina, and 10 days after south Carolina is Super Tuesday, the so-called SEC primary ... our team across Super Tuesday is stronger than anyone else's in the field."