After a tepid start, Ted Cruz plans to ‘play hard’ in Iowa

“Whether we win or lose, this race will be decided by the men and women gathered here,” he said last Friday to a group of mostly older people sitting on folding chairs in a conference room.

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Iowa’s first-in-the nation caucuses are often a high-stakes event for presidential campaigns — and this year the state is especially critical for Cruz, a stalwart conservative in a crowded field. The Texas Republican’s uncompromising stances seem designed to appeal to the conservative base that dominates the state GOP, as well as the state’s heavy concentration of evangelical Christians. On Friday in Sheldon, Iowa, Cruz forcefully denounced Supreme Court rulings upholding a key part of the Affordable Care Act and affirming the rights of gays to marry nationwide.

But the early evidence suggests that victory in Iowa may be an uphill climb for the Texas senator.

Cruz’s poll numbers in the state are underwhelming so far: a Des Moines register poll last month put him in eighth place among likely caucus-goers, with 5 percent saying they would support Cruz. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was in first place with 17 percent of the vote. State Republicans have expressed surprise that Cruz, who has only one paid staffer in Iowa, had visited the state as an officially declared candidate just twice before last week’s trip.

Now Cruz is doubling down on the Hawkeye State. Starting Friday Cruz is again making a swing through the state. His last stop: a speech on Saturday at Drake University in Des Moines, titled “Believe Again.”

“I’m going to spend a lot of time in the great state of Iowa,” Cruz promised more than a week ago at a restaurant in Denison, where a print of “American Gothic” hung on the wall behind him and a man rang a cowbell each time the senator made an applause line.

He has visited the state twice before as a candidate, with several more visits in the works over the coming weeks. He is vowing to visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties, launching a fresh push to recruit key grass-roots volunteers and opening a campaign office soon.

“If Ted Cruz is your guy, I want to talk to you,” Bryan English, Cruz’s Iowa campaign chair, said to about 75 people who came to hear the candidate speak in Red Oak.

They included the father of Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who said he plans to support Cruz.

But Ernst herself who took a very public motorcycle ride with Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker earlier this month — remains uncommitted. Other key state leaders have already signed on to other campaigns. And some here wonder why it took so long for Cruz to push this hard in Iowa.

Cruz went to Iowa a week after his announcement in March, and returned in April to attend a homeschooler conference in Des Moines. A third planned trip was canceled because of weather. He did not attend the Ernst event three weeks ago that featured many other GOP presidential hopefuls — including Walker — instead speaking at the North Carolina Republican convention. Cruz has also had to spend a large chunk of time in Washington, where the Senate has been in session.

“We haven’t seen him,” said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa Republican party political director. “It’s one of those things where if he’s going to be competitive here, and he has some stiff competition for the space he wants to occupy, he has to have a more constant presence in the state. You can’t be gone for two months.”

An Iowa Republican who did not want to be identified in order to speak freely was more blunt: “Ted Cruz can absolutely win the Iowa caucuses, but thus far he’s not running the campaign that can do it for him.”

In an interview on Saturday, Cruz defended his strategy, saying much of the campaign’s time and energy for the first few months had been focused on fundraising, on recruiting statewide leadership teams and on peeling away caucus-goers who once backed current presidential candidates, including Mike Huckabee, who won the state in 2008, and 2012 caucus winner Rick Santorum. Members of Cruz’s Iowa team include former Iowa secretary of state Matt Schultz, who supported Santorum, and Joel Kurtinitis and state Sen. Jason Schultz, who both endorsed former Texas congressman Ron Paul during the last cycle.

Cruz said he is “playing hard” here – as well as New Hampshire, where he wants to appeal to Catholics, and South Carolina, where there are many evangelical Christians.

“If you look at our leadership teams you see conservatives, you see evangelicals, you see libertarians . . . I’m not aware of any other candidate that enjoys that breadth of support from the many groups that comprise the Republican majority,” Cruz said before an event at an indoor gun range in Johnston, Iowa.

Cruz advisers say that the candidate’s strategy is to coalesce his conservative base while pulling in support from evangelicals and conservative libertarians and casting aside what the candidate calls “the mushy middle.”

The campaign describes the electorate in a bracket-style system: conservatives, libertarians, evangelicals, and moderates. It believes Cruz’s path to victory involves winning the conservative bracket and getting large numbers of people in the evangelical bracket, as well as libertarians, to back his campaign.

But the biggest focus has been on fundraising. Cruz’s campaign raised $4 million in its first week and a collection of super PACs supporting the candidate have raised $37 million, according to CNN. The campaign itself said it is on pace to have raised $8 million to $10 million by June 30.

“In the early parts of a campaign, you cannot succeed without having the resources to communicate your message,” Cruz said.”There are seasons and phases in a presidential race.

“There are other candidates in the field who are not seeing significant fundraising success, who can spend every day doing nothing but grass-roots events because they’re not having success raising money,” he said.

Cruz’s campaign downplayed its minimal staffing in the state saying that its strategy all along has been to focus on recruiting the key, lesser-known grass-roots activists who can make inroads with his base, and to reach to conservatives who may not have voted in 2012.

“The era when a candidate could come move to an early state for a year, catch fire and then build a national campaign based on the momentum of that one state is no longer likely to occur because the time frame is compressed,” said Cruz. “And so we are also very deliberately running a national campaign.”

Cruz advisers said the candidate needs to win one of the first three primary states — or be in the top three in Iowa. Additionally, the campaign is pouring resources into states that will vote March 1 and March 15, a strategy they believe will position Cruz well after the crowded early primaries and caucuses shake out. Regardless of outcome, the campaign wants to be positioned to immediately dive into the delegate-rich second round of states, which includes Cruz’s home state of Texas.

“Our intent is to be standing” on March 15, an adviser said. Cruz will spend August stumping in states including Arkansas, Wyoming and Alabama. Cruz’s team also wants to try to solidify conservatives in more liberal states such as Massachusetts and Minnesota.

But Iowa Republicans believe the state is ripe for a candidate like Cruz. While Cruz advisers say they have solid teams in New Hampshire, where he has drawn large, rowdy crowds, and South Carolina, they are traditionally less friendly to a candidate, such as Cruz.

“I think Iowa is crucial for his candidacy,” Robinson said. “I’m surprised by his campaign strategy of saying we’re going to compete later on in the race and not go all-in in Iowa. Iowa is a state where he can make his mark.”

In this evangelical-dominated state, Cruz has the advantage of being able to deploy an evangelical pastor as a campaign surrogate: his father, Rafael. The elder Cruz has often drawn headlines for the wrong reasons — for instance, comparing President Barack Obama to Fidel Castro. But he’s been warmly received by many of the evangelical voters who made up 57 percent of Republican caucus-goers in 2012, according to entrance polls. He’s been a steady presence here in Iowa, showing up at more than a dozen events across the state over a three-day period this month.

Cruz assailed against what he said are efforts to strip away religious freedom. He reaffirmed his promises to protect the Second Amendment, repeal Obamacare and abolish the IRS. He vowed to destroy the Islamic State, and ensure Iran doesn’t acquire a nuclear weapon. And he described himself as the only candidate who is willing to take on anyone — Republican, Democrat or otherwise — to fight for his beliefs.

“If you look at the other candidates and ask on those issues on your list, where have they stood and led. What have they meaningfully done to lead on those issues?” he said in Denison.

Cruz paces around when delivering speeches and speaks with the cadence and zeal of a sermon. Here in Red Oak, he asked the enthusiastic crowd to imagine a president that won’t allow Iran to have nuclear weapons.

“Scripture tells us there’s nothing new under the sun,” he said.

“We could if we could get you in there,” a woman in the crowd said.

“Well, Amen, ma’am,” said Cruz. “That’s exactly what we’re working to do.”