Uh-oh.

Photographer: Max Whittaker pool via Bloomberg

Ted Cruz Has a Ben Carson Problem

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's carefully crafted plan to become the right-wing standard-bearer in the Republican presidential race is pretty much on schedule. His campaign has more cash than any rival's, is backed by a well-heeled super PAC and is gaining in the polls. The Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll has him in third place in Iowa, where caucuses on Feb. 1 will give voters their first chance to cast ballots.

For the Texas Senator then, it's so far, so good. But now Cruz has a new problem: the neurosurgeon and political novice Ben Carson. The big news of the Bloomberg/Des Moines Register survey is that Carson has surged into the lead, favored by 28 percent of Iowa Republicans who said they're likely to attend a caucus. Next comes Donald Trump with 19 percent. Cruz is third with 10 percent.

The Cruz strategy has been predicated on a good Iowa showing, a win or solid second. The reasoning was that Trump -- whom Cruz generally has refrained from criticizing -- would fade and that the contest would come down to Cruz versus an establishment candidate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.

In Iowa and elsewhere, Cruz has assiduously courted born-again Christians as the base of his support.

Evangelicals comprise 42 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers, according to the Bloomberg poll, and have shaped the last couple of Republican contests in the state. Carson, like Cruz a devout Christian, is running away with this vote, getting a third of it in the poll, followed by Trump with 18 percent and Cruz with 13 percent.

Cruz probably has to double that showing to achieve his objective. It's not hard to see why Trump, a thrice-married, one-time abortion-rights supporter without roots in the Christian right, is slipping with these voters, or why Cruz could benefit from further erosion.

But chipping away at Carson is harder. There is no record to attack. Republican voters seem unfazed by his lack of experience, and his calm, genial manner plays well in Iowa.

About 30 percent of Carson's evangelical supporters pick Cruz as their second choice, says Ann Selzer, the Iowa pollster who conducted the survey, while noting that the former head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins is viewed favorably by almost all Iowa Republicans. "Cruz's big target is Carson," she said. "But the problem is there's almost no one that doesn't like Ben Carson. Cruz attacks him at his peril."

That's also the view of Jamie Johnson, an evangelical pastor from Boone, Iowa who supported former Texas Governor Rick Perry until he dropped out of the race last month. "Those evangelicals who care most about ideology are with Cruz while those who care about likability are with Carson," Johnson said, adding that "the social fabric and culture of Iowa is based on likability."

The Cruz camp acknowledges the Carson surge but predicts it'll recede under the tougher media scrutiny that comes with improved poll numbers.

There are 100 days until the Iowa caucuses, giving the Texas Senator some time to build support among conservatives who regard Washington Republicans with suspicion. With that in mind, Cruz is stressing his opposition to raising the debt ceiling over the next 10 days -- the Treasury Department says it'll have to be increased by Nov. 5 to avoid default on United States debt -- without big federal spending cuts and other measures, maybe including defunding Planned Parenthood, a favorite target of the religious right.

Cruz isn't a major factor in New Hampshire, which follows Iowa with the nation's first primary elections. But his camp says he'll be an important factor in the next contest, in South Carolina, and in subsequent primaries in the South.

But that assumes a strong showing in Iowa against a neurosurgeon who few thought was even a minor player just a few months ago.

(Corrects misspelling of Rick Perry's name in ninth paragraph.)

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

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net