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Cruz Campaign Enters High-Stakes Phase in South Carolina

With the New Hampshire primary behind him, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is setting his sights on a string of mostly southern states that could test the central arguments of his campaign.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz speaks to supporters in Hollis, New Hampshire, after an apparent third-place showing in the state's Republican presidential primary on Feb. 9, 2016.

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Next election night, Ted Cruz probably won't be able to claim victory with a third-place finish.

That's because the U.S. senator from Texas, fresh off an expectations-beating showing in New Hampshire, is now staring down a string of contests with much higher stakes, beginning with the next primary on Feb. 20 in South Carolina. The mostly southern sequence will put to the test two central arguments of Cruz's candidacy: that the map favors his deeply conservative brand — and that he is the only contender with both the money and organization to capitalize on it. 

Cruz was never expected to win New Hampshire, which has a history of rewarding less-ideological candidates — in the closing days, Cruz had come to refer to the primary as "moderate-a-palooza." His campaign ended up only publicly releasing a single TV ad aimed at the state, and although Cruz spent almost all his time in New Hampshire after the Iowa caucuses, his total hours on the ground there paled in comparison to the frequent trips he made to the Hawkeye State.  

Yet Cruz benefited from at least two things: low expectations and establishment support split among several of his rivals, providing an opening for Cruz in the shadow of ultimate victor Donald Trump. Cruz struck a triumphant tone Tuesday night, proclaiming he had "effectively tied" former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for third against all odds. Cruz also sent a warning shot at any other candidates shifting their sights south.

"Now we go on to South Carolina, the Palmetto State, and you know, Washington liberals may find South Carolina far less hospitable environs," Cruz said. "And on to Nevada and Super Tuesday, the so-called SEC primary."

For weeks, Cruz has talked about South Carolina as the site of a rubber match between himself and Trump, assuming they would each notch a win in the first two early voting states. With that scenario now a reality, Cruz's campaign appears poised for its fiercest confrontations yet with the billionaire in South Carolina, a state already associated with bare-knuckle politics. 

Still basking in the glory of its victory in the Iowa caucuses, Cruz's campaign sees South Carolina as somewhat of a return to familiar terrain, with its heavy concentrations of evangelical voters and organizational rigors. Cruz already claims more than 8,000 volunteers in South Carolina, some of them based in a dorm-like residence similar to what was known as "Camp Cruz" in Iowa.

"It's a state where, a lot of times, as you've seen in the past, winners out of Iowa have done well," Cruz adviser Jason Miller told reporters Saturday at the eighth Republican debate. "Eight thousand volunteers — that's a lot. As we've seen before with the Cruz for President campaign, organization matters."

Yet South Carolina Republicans are cautioning any campaign against viewing the state as something of a repeat of Iowa, even if its political landscape is more in line with the Hawkeye State than it is with New Hampshire.

"South Carolina is very different from Iowa," said Bruce Haynes, a GOP strategist with ties to the Palmetto State. "It’s a much more diverse state — demographically, geographically, economically."

Plus, Cruz will have to find a way to overcome Trump, who has consistently led the GOP pack in South Carolina by double digits in public polling. The billionaire's decisive victory in the New Hampshire gives him a new burst of momentum that may serve to extend that lead. 

"I think this is an uphill battle for Cruz in South Carolina," Haynes said. "If he comes in second, I think he meets expectations."

Key to Cruz’s success in South Carolina could be another dominant showing among evangelical voters. Shortly after his campaign got underway 10 months ago, it set out to recruit a supportive pastor in all 46 counties in South Carolina, similar to what it did in Iowa. 

Mike Gonzalez, the pastor in charge of Cruz's evangelical outreach in South Carolina, said he expects the "lion's share" of evangelical support in the state to go to Cruz. The senator already has more than 300 pastors backing him across the state, with more than one pastor behind Cruz in many counties, Gonzalez added. 

Veterans’ issues are also expected to factor into Cruz’s campaign in South Carolina, which is home to a number of military installations — one of which Cruz is already referencing in a narrowly tailored TV ad. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an Air Force veteran who made the military central to his aborted 2016 campaign, has already said he will stump for Cruz here.

The Cruz campaign was already shifting its attention to South Carolina as Granite Staters went to the polls Tuesday, sending Cruz's wife, Heidi, to an election-night party in Charleston. On Monday, she and Cruz's father, Rafael, attended phone banks and met with pastors across the Palmetto State. 

After the South Carolina primary — and the Nevada caucuses three days later — Cruz will turn the bulk of his attention to the group of mostly southern states, including Texas, that is set to vote March 1. In a media appearance earlier this month, Cruz estimated his organization in those states is three to five times stronger than that of anyone else in the GOP field. 

Yet even as he boasts of his campaign's strength in the South, Cruz's allies supporters are trying to keep expectations in check, continuing to wave off suggestions that any one state — or group of states — is must-win for the senator. Among their arguments: Cruz's campaign ended 2015 with nearly $19 million in the bank, far more than any Republican opponent, which they say is just one sign of a campaign built for the long haul. 

"It’s just the reality — he doesn’t have to win the state to continue to go on," Gonzalez said of South Carolina. But if Cruz wins the state, Gonzalez added, "I believe he’ll be the nominee, no doubt, and we’re working very diligently to secure that.”

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Politics 2016 elections Ted Cruz