Crunch Time

Ted Cruz Tells Iowans Why They Should Pick Him Over Donald Trump

The Texas firebrand makes his case: He was Trump before Trump was cool.

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Ted Cruz moved to seize his Iowa moment on a cold Sunday evening at a gas station convenience store in a town of under 1,000 people.

The Depot Express in Van Horne was packed to capacity with nearly 100 voters in the state that goes first in picking presidential nominees. Some in attendance drove great lengths to see the Texan. Standing by the cash register, the final question the firebrand senator received was one he was well-prepared to answer: Why should Iowa Republicans pick him to carry their torch over Donald Trump, the billionaire juggernaut with whom he is now statistically tied in the Hawkeye State?

After dispensing with the niceties—“I like Donald Trump a lot”—Cruz made his point: He was Trump before Trump was cool.

“I think the reason people got excited about Donald Trump is they're fed up with Washington. And they're fed up with politicians in both parties who lie to us, who don't tell the truth and don't do what they said they would do,” Cruz said. “I am immensely grateful that Donald Trump is running and I think that it has actually been enormously beneficial to our campaign. Why? Because Trump has helped frame the central question of this primary as: Who will stand up to Washington?”

“Right,” said one attendee.

“Mm-hmm,” intoned another.

Cruz continued: “Now if that's the central question, it leads to a natural follow-up question. OK. Who has stood up to Washington? Who's stood up to not just Democrats but to leaders in our own party? And in that regard my record is markedly different from every other candidate on that debate stage.”

Cruz has a point. He has been a consistent pain in the neck for the Republican leaders who have become pariahs to significant chunks of the conservative movement. His first big move was to lead his party into a government shutdown in 2013, mere months after he took office, on the starry-eyed (and ultimately unsuccessful) goal of cornering President Barack Obama into defunding the Affordable Care Act. He has similarly pushed—unsuccessfully, albeit unapologetically—to use the power of the purse to stop Obama's immigration policies and strip federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Cruz mocked his fellow Republican presidential candidates for being absent in those fights. “It was like they were in witness protection,” he said. Additionally, Cruz has lambasted Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, calling him a liar on the floor of the chamber. He also once opted to ruin his colleagues' holiday plans rather than consent to a quick vote on a piece of legislation he opposed.

As a result of all this, Cruz is perhaps the most isolated man in Washington. He faces bipartisan hatred from leaders and rank-and-file members. Senior Republican aides and strategists think he's kryptonite if the party, whose core base of older, white conservative voters is shrinking, wants to be viable on a national stage. The only place he can make his mark is here in the countryside, with like-minded angry voters invested in the same revolution.

Indeed, if Trump has helped gin up this element of the base, Cruz may want to thank him with a Christmas card. And yet, he has a steep hill to climb. Trump has fired up the base with a Cruz-on-steroids persona: more politically incorrect, scorched-earth and (unlike Cruz) self-financed and not dependent on large donors.

Cruz, who has begun to subtly jab Trump in recent days, poked him again earlier Sunday by telling a crowd at the Pizza Ranch in Newton that his immigration blueprint is “the most aggressive—it is the most significant plan to secure the border and end illegal immigration.” Trump has positioned himself as the leading restrictionist in the Republican field. Sunday was the second day of Cruz's three-day swing through Iowa after Thanksgiving.

A Quinnipiac poll of Republicans in the state released last week found Trump leading with 25 percent, and Cruz surging to 23 percent, within the poll's margin of error. Ben Carson, the former Iowa front-runner who has been sinking rapidly in the polls, could give Cruz room to grow—both are competing for the state's outsize evangelical constituency. In fourth place with 13 percent was fellow first-term Senator Marco Rubio, who is straddling the establishment and conservative divide and with whom Cruz is locked in a war of words on immigration and national security.

At the convenience store, Cruz told the assembled Iowans that conservatives are “uniting behind our campaign” because they want “someone who doesn't just talk the talk, they're looking for someone who's not just a campaign conservative but someone who's been a consistent conservative.”

It's far from clear that conservative credentials will be the deciding factor in the Republican race—establishment-backed candidates with moderate inclinations have won the party's presidential primaries for decades. But if it is, Cruz has a strong case to make, particularly in Iowa, which has a tendency to break the mold and pick an ideological warrior—it selected Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008.

“Our country's in crisis,” Cruz told the crowd in Van Horne, asking for their support. “It's now or never. We are at the edge of a precipice. And four or eight more years going down this road we risk losing the greatest country in the history of the world.”

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