Calculating.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Underestimating Ted Cruz? Don't.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Ted Cruz is a man with a plan. The Republican presidential candidate, bete noire of his party's establishment, has carefully calculated a path to becoming the right-wing standard-bearer.

That makes him the most underestimated candidate in the field.

Cruz is rising in some polls and attracting more attention after the Republican debates in Cleveland on Aug. 6. The chattering class focused more on how well John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio or Ben Carson did in those encounters, along with the confounding staying power of Donald Trump.

But Cruz, whose political cunning equals his sharp intellect, may have laid the best foundation for advancing in this wide-open race. He touched all the conservative erogenous zones at the Cleveland forum and strategically refuses to say anything negative about Trump, the front-runner in early national polls.

Cruz relishes attacking his own party leaders. This makes him unpopular with congressional colleagues and other Republican eminences, but it delights many conservatives. He sees opportunities to delight them even more this fall with battles over spending and the debt ceiling. After debt-ceiling disputes shut down the government in 1995 and 2013, leaving Republicans reeling politically, party leaders want to avoid them. Not Cruz; for him, shutdown talk is a chance to thrill activists.

There's a reason he's avoided criticizing Trump and has been solicitous of Carson, the neurosurgeon and political neophyte with a strong conservative following. Cruz expects their novelty to wear off, and he wants their supporters, especially among evangelicals, to come to him.

No candidate will get to the right of the freshman Texas senator on issues of importance to the Christian right, like defunding Planned Parenthood, condemning illegal immigration or bashing President Barack Obama.

QuickTake The Tea Party

Cruz's campaign manager, Jeff Roe, says his team divides the Republican electorate into four parts: a relatively moderate and business-centered establishment faction, the Christian right, the Tea Party anti-government bloc, and libertarians. Cruz contends he's competitive in all but the establishment bracket.

Born-again Christians receive special attention, starting with the Cruz campaign launch at Liberty University in March. Cruz has had 55 meetings with church leaders since late last year. His father, an evangelical minister, has had more. There is competition for this bloc, which is likely to make up 40 percent of the participants in the Iowa caucuses. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, two others with special appeal to religious conservatives, won the most votes at the 2012 and 2008 Iowa contests. Cruz figures he's the fresh face, more aggressive and better financed, who can make the others seem like yesterday's news.

His fundraising is strong. Cruz super-PACs have more money -- $52 million as of June 30, according to the most recent campaign-finance reports -- than any other candidate's except Jeb Bush's. His campaign claims 225,000 donors, dwarfing most others. This, the campaign argues, gives him resources to go the distance.

There are four contests in February -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Polls show Cruz running respectably in Iowa. Last weekend, according to press reports, he dominated an event in Nevada. His brain trust figures that if he wins or places in a couple of the February tests, he'll be well-positioned for the 10 contests of March 1, Super Tuesday. The bulk of Super Tuesday delegates come from Southern states, including Texas. No one has spent as much time as Cruz courting voters there, most recently on a seven-state August bus tour.

"We are better-positioned than anyone for March 1," says Roe, the campaign manager. "If we win that day, we're a finalist."

No one doubts Cruz's brainpower; he's a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, a champion debater and a Supreme Court clerk to former Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

He's also tough and relishes political combat. He's fought bitterly with Republican congressional leaders, famously accusing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of lying. He made a similar charge in June against Republican guru Karl Rove, who fired back. The fracas involved a dispute over a 2009 campaign contribution to Cruz from former President George H.W. Bush (Cruz was considering a run for Texas attorney general at the time), and Cruz's relationship with the Bush family is now strained.

Cruz worked as a policy adviser to George W. Bush's 2000 campaign. Veterans of that contest remember him as a conventional conservative who veered sharply to the right later. 

Cruz took on the Texas establishment in 2012, knocking off the Republican lieutenant governor in a Senate primary and then winning the general election.

Cruz strategists say their man has a genuine shot at winning the nomination, contrary to conventional wisdom. Democrats say his harsh oratory, hard-line views and disruptive behavior would make him an easy target, enabling them to win as many as 35 states. (Obama won 26 last time.)

We'll see. This Texan is a politician who methodically plots every move. If he falls short this time, some sources close to him say, he figures the Democrats win the presidency. Then he cashes in conservative chits and picks up the pieces afterwards.

There is a model: Ronald Reagan who, as a conservative challenger, lost the Republican presidential nomination to President Gerald Ford in 1976; Ford lost the general election and Reagan won the presidency four years later.

(Removes erroneous reference to Cruz job offer in George W. Bush administration in 15th paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Jonathan I Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net