Ted Cruz Surges in Iowa, Powered by Outsider Fervor
November 29, 2015
CHARITON, Iowa — Around 10 p.m. Saturday, with locals here stuffing the entryway of a general store known for something called taco pizza, the presidential campaign of Senator Ted Cruz seemed to be winning a bet with itself.
Could the candidate fill the space on a frosty night, in a town of 4,000 or so, more than two months before voting begins, at an hour late enough that taco pizza was no longer being served?
“I’m pretty sure this is breaking a Guinness World Record,” Mr. Cruz said, settling in beside the doughnut display as scores of Iowans surrounded him. A burly man with a thick beard, a shaved head and a large soda offered to be Mr. Cruz’s “personal bouncer.”
“It’s a very bad idea in politics,” Mr. Cruz began, diplomatically, “to ask voters to leave.”
In fact, Mr. Cruz’s Iowa bandwagon, long churning in relative obscurity, seems to be approaching capacity. Event audiences have swelled. People are coming forward with endorsements. A recent Quinnipiac University poll of likely Republican caucusgoers gave Mr. Cruz 23 percent support, a close second to Donald J. Trump, in the clearest signal yet that Mr. Cruz has begun to tap into the outsider fervor that has for months powered rivals without public sector experience.
“How about this?” Mr. Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe, asked, adding an admiring profanity as he appraised the attendance on Saturday night.
During a weekend swing through central and southern Iowa, Mr. Cruz filled a high school common area in Lamoni and prayed with a well-wishing pastor in the parking lot of a Casey’s General Store. He ordered fried pickles in Mt. Ayr and thanked officers in Lenox for opening a campaign car after a member of Mr. Cruz’s staff locked the keys inside.
At a church in Des Moines on Sunday morning, Mr. Cruz expressed faux regret that his team had invited members of the news media — “I apologize for bringing pestilence and plague into the church,” he said to laughs — and he acted out a scene from the film “The Princess Bride.”
“I will confess to knowing an awful lot of that movie,” Mr. Cruz said from the stage. Moments later, at the pastor’s urging, the congregation was chanting “Humperdinck.”
Campaign officials, assessing their momentum, have pointed to a strong field operation, diligent legwork with crucial groups like evangelicals and the support of local figures like Representative Steve King. They also concede their good fortune that the race has, to date, unfurled more or less as Mr. Cruz had hoped, with establishment Republicans failing to coalesce around a single candidate and other religious conservatives in the race failing to gain traction.
“What Washington wants is conservatives divided,” Mr. Cruz said at a Pizza Ranch in Newton on Sunday. “That’s how the moderate establishment candidate runs up the middle with 23 percent of the vote, steals the nomination and then loses the general because millions of conservatives stay home.”
Yet as Mr. Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, crisscrosses Iowa, railing against the Obama years and establishment figures in his own party, his rise is particularly notable for the rhetorical feat that has helped fuel it.
In an election season that has rewarded political outsiders like Mr. Trump and Ben Carson, placed Senator Marco Rubio of Florida on the defensive over his congressional record and tormented the current and former governors in the field, Mr. Cruz has proved the exception: He seems to have persuaded an electorate deeply skeptical of its government that his time in Washington has been an asset.
“When I see how he’s fighting right now in Congress for us, I trust him in the presidency,” said Melinda Shervheim, 49, of Redding. She cited Mr. Cruz’s push to repeal President Obama’s health care law and his hard-line positions against immigration.
“It’s really tough there if you don’t know the climate,” said Roger Potts, 76, of Lamoni. “Who’s with you? Who’s against you? Cruz would already have that.”
Mr. Cruz has cast himself as a Republican unwilling to compromise, joking Saturday night that a room at Lamoni High School had been named for his colleagues in Washington, because a sign on the wall read “concessions” in large red letters.
He also has begun to create some careful distance from his semi-ally Mr. Trump, positioning himself as an often like-minded figure but one with the requisite legislative battle scars to effect change.
“Let me point out,” he told reporters recently, “when it comes to standing up to Washington, I was doing it long before Mr. Trump was running for president.”
Mr. Cruz has even appeared to use Mr. Trump as a foil of sorts, allowing himself to appear more thoughtful by comparison when confronted with some of the billionaire’s more caustic ideas. After Mr. Trump seemed to suggest a national registry for Muslims, Mr. Cruz said he was “a big fan of Donald Trump’s, but I’m not a fan of government registries.”
For his polite efforts, Mr. Cruz has largely been spared the vitriol of Mr. Trump, who mused recently that he would “have to go to war” with Mr. Cruz if he climbed in the polls.
But despite Mr. Cruz’s rise, relations have remained cordial.
“Any time you advance, you become a threat,” Mr. Roe, the campaign manager, said in an interview when asked about Mr. Trump. “I’ll leave it to them to make those decisions.”
During his stops over the weekend, Mr. Cruz encountered several voters who said they had previously supported Mr. Trump. Mr. Cruz has established a particular edge among women, according to the Quinnipiac poll, which said he led all rivals with the support of 26 percent of likely female caucusgoers.
The campaign does not seem to know exactly why.
“I guess women like a strong leader who is confident and knows what he’s doing,” Bryan English, Mr. Cruz’s Iowa state director, said in an interview, before hedging. “Asking me to dissect why women are voting the way they’re voting is like asking me to predict what Donald Trump is going to do.”
Among Mr. Cruz’s admirers at the general store was Terri Bennett, 43, of Knoxville, Iowa, who said she caucused for Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008.
“We watched him filibuster Obamacare, and I said, ‘I wish he’d run for president,’ ” Ms. Bennett said.
Outside, a local pastor, Joshua Verwers, waited to pray with Mr. Cruz, whom he called “one of the few running who are still biblically qualified to hold office,” along with Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.
And after Mr. Cruz wrapped up, Bernard Beary, 57, wrote a $100 check on the spot, his first contribution of the campaign, and handed it to Mr. Roe.
Not all receptions were as warm. Shaking hands earlier at a pizza shop in Mt. Ayr, Mr. Cruz happened upon Jessie Ricker, 21, who said she had come simply to eat, not to discuss politics.
“It’s one of the hazards of Iowa,” Mr. Cruz replied. “You never know when you’re going to run into someone running for president when you’re trying to eat pizza.”
Minutes later, Ms. Ricker thought she had forgotten his name. But it had begun to stick.
“Ted Cruz, right?” she asked, as the senator worked the next booth.