(Bloomberg Politics) — While Republican firebrand Donald Trump has seized control of news headlines over the past few weeks, it’s Texas Sen. Ted Cruz who may be poised for a breakout moment on the campaign trail, particularly after impressing conservatives over the weekend in the key state of Iowa.
Cruz led the presidential pack in fundraising during the latest quarter of the campaign, hauling in a remarkable $14.3 million in addition to $38 million raised by super PACs supporting him. He’s enjoying greater publicity with the release of his book A Time for Truth, over which he battled with the New York Times about a spot on its coveted bestseller list. And he’s raising fresh hackles in the Senate by threatening to block all of President Barack Obama’s nominees to the State Department unless Congress gets to review the Iran nuclear deal prior to a United Nations vote.
Cruz’s hopes of competing for the big prize likely hinge on Iowa, the first nominating contest which, unlike other early states, plays to his strengths, with an outsize crop of evangelical and hard-right Republicans. Judging from his reception in Iowa over the weekend, Cruz has some reason for optimism. ‘A great shot’
See also: Ted Cruz is going on Obamacare
“Senator Cruz has a great shot,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a social conservative activist in Iowa who endorsed Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012—both went on to win the state caucuses. “He’s definitely a movement conservative, who has $51 million behind him. Quite frankly, we’ve been hoping for a movement conservative to be well resourced.”
At a Saturday gathering of religious conservatives here in Ames, Iowa, hosted by Vander Plaats’s group The Family Leader, Cruz turned a ho-hum question-and-answer session into a parade of cheers with his distinctive right-wing edge and wit.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz, adorned in his trademark American flag-themed sneakers as he interviewed Cruz, tried to throw the Texan off his game by pointing out that the 2013 government shutdown that he led had failed in its goal of defunding Obamacare. Cruz spun it into a tale of him “standing and fighting” against Washington. The crowd ate it up. Next, Luntz asked the crowd if they’d like to have a governor or a senator become president—overwhelmingly the answer was a governor.
Cruz interrupted: “Actually Frank, let me jump in and ask: how many of you would like to have a conservative as your next president?”
Deafening applause. Luntz was flustered. Cruz had taken over.
A festival of red meat
It’s a pattern that would continue through the half-hour session, which was littered with applause lines and featured two spontaneous standing ovations—one when Cruz called for defunding and prosecuting Planned Parenthood over a recent video he called “gruesome and disgusting,” which featured one of its officials discussing donating fetal organs; another when he vowed, if elected, to revoke “every single unconstitutional, illegal executive action” Obama has taken. He also attacked against the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, accusing his fellow Republicans who don’t want to amend the constitution of spouting Obama talking points, and trashed the new Iran nuclear accord.
It was a festival of red meat for a crowd that lapped it all up. In a classic Cruzian act, he himself stood up with the crowd to applaud several of his own lines.
“You’re a powerful speaker,” Luntz deadpanned.
Of course, it was a Cruz-friendly crowd, but the same reception was not enjoyed by other social conservatives like Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor currently leading the field in Iowa polls, or Huckabee, who is running for president again.
“And thank you for being a fighter,” said one attendee who asked Cruz a question about “Commiecare,” devising a new jeering term for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).
See also: Cruz gets standing ovation in Texas
Now the unsettling part for Cruz: The Family Leadership Summit was a reminder that anything less than an impressive showing in Iowa could doom Cruz’s chances. He’s not a natural fit for any other of the early states—New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada—and after those contests are decided, the field is expected to narrow significantly. And so far, Cruz has yet to show polling strength in the Hawkeye State. He was tied for fourth place in a Quinnipiac University poll of Iowa Republican voters released July 1. A prior Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa poll late May placed him in the middle of the pack. Potential was there—primary voters viewed him favorably—but they preferred others.
As Trump sucked up most of the oxygen Saturday with an inflammatory remark deriding Arizona Sen. John McCain’s war record, Cruz stood apart from most candidates in refusing to disavow the brash real estate mogul’s remarks. That seems risky given the intense backlash, but it may be a calculated strategy that involves play nice with Trump in the hope that he flames out and his supporters flock to Cruz. It’s a lot of supporters, too: Trump has led the Republican field in several national polls lately.
Cruz’s other problem is the massive field of candidates competing for the conservative vote, including Walker, Huckabee, Santorum and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
The question is whether Cruz’s book publicity and tour through Iowa can translate into the polling boost he needs. If not now, when?
“People like [Cruz] because of his bold and courageous spirit,” Vander Plaats said. “He’s not only willing to take on Democrats but he’s willing to take out the Republicans who wear our jerseys but score for the other team.”