Ted Cruz Tea Leaves All Over the Map Ahead of the Biggest Moment of His Career

Heading into the Iowa caucuses, the contest that could cripple his presidential run, Ted Cruz's campaign is in flux. Having seemingly peaked in the Hawkeye State around the turn of the year — taking the lead in multiple polls from GOP frontrunner Donald Trump — Cruz has focused the attention of the GOP establishment on himself, and away from Trump.

He's been attacked by the likes of Bob Dole and the Wall Street Journal editorial page — both suggested that, in the face of a potential Cruz nomination, Trump might not be that bad. And he's drawn fire from Trump, with whom Cruz had largely been in a detente in 2015. He picked up the endorsement of his former rival and fellow Texan, Rick Perry, but lost one of his biggest supporters from his first run for public office in 2012, Sarah Palin, when the ex-Alaska governor endorsed Trump.

"Iowa was where, of the first two contests, you would've thought [Cruz] would've done the best against Trump," Rebecca Deen, the chair of the political science department at the University of Texas at Arlington, says, "and then Trump gets the Palin endorsement — it's questionable how much value that adds to Trump's campaign — but, certainly, she has been very complimentary of Cruz in the past, so it definitely doesn't help Cruz in creating the impression that all of the Tea Partiers and all of the evangelicals are behind him."

That's extremely important in Iowa. The Iowa GOP has a large number of evangelicals. Cruz speaks their language and needs to win a large percentage of them to do well in the caucuses, but over the last two weeks, Cruz has slipped, falling behind Trump in the last seven polls measured by Real Clear Politics in the state.

Thursday night, Trump stripped Cruz of the Texas Senator's chance to fight back. Trump made good on his threat not to show up to a Fox News-hosted debate in Des Moines, showing his displeasure with one of the network's chosen moderators, Megyn Kelly, who pressed Trump on his misogyny at a previous Fox News hosted debate. Trump hosted a rival event in the Iowa capital, and Cruz faced fire from his fellow candidates and the moderators as the highest polling person on the stage.

After mock-insulting everyone on the stage in his opening statement to, he joked, make up for Trump's absence, Cruz grew feisty as he felt he was targeted by moderators, and threatened at one point to walk off the stage (not to join Trump, presumably). Cruz hung around, and pushed his vision — his mantra-like promise to "repeal every word of Obamacare" and his "bomb them all, let God sort them out" approach to foreign policy, mainly — but for much of the night he seemed like a boxer training without a sparring partner.

Regardless of what happens in Iowa, Deen says Cruz has the organization and money to hang around until his potential firewall, the so-called SEC primary on March 1. Texas will hold its primary that day, as will much of the rest of the South, and Cruz is well positioned to clean up. In the most recent poll of likely GOP voters done in Texas, Cruz has overtaken Trump, leading the real estate developer by 5 points.

"I don't see a scenario that is likely to happen where Cruz would not be somebody we are still talking about on March 1," Deen says.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young