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Ted Cruz back in Iowa, where presidential dreams flourish and wither

Coincidence or not, Ted Cruz’s appearances in Iowa this weekend come as Texas’ tea party senator and his wife appeared to be trying to humanize the potential 2016 presidential candidate, who is both loved and hated, even among Republicans, for his faux-filibuster and failed government-shutdown strategy.

On Friday night, Cruz is scheduled to speak to a crowd of about 600 at the state Republican Party’s big Ronald Reagan fundraiser in Des Moines. (The appearance is to be live-streamed at www.desmoinesregister.com). Over the weekend, he's set to take part in Rep. Steve King’s annual pheasant hunt and a “Defenders of Freedom” barbeque.

It is his third visit in recent months to the state that kicks off the presidential nominating contests, a place already swarming with presidential wannabes from both sides of the aisle. And, though Iowa has multiple delights, no politician enters its borders without the expectation that presidential talk will ensue.

But it is one thing to generate talk and another to get in position to win both the state’s caucuses and the party’s nomination, feats rarely accomplished by the same candidate in the same year.  That is Cruz’s challenge now: to expand his tea party support to other facets of the party, or at least neutralize mainstream animosity toward him. It will not be easy.

As the senator who rallied Republicans in the House to spurn budget agreements unless the president’s healthcare plan was quashed, Cruz comes into Iowa as beloved by tea party advocates as he is disdained by establishment Republicans who blame him for the party’s recent popularity plummet.

In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Cruz gave no quarter, though he declined to say whether he would push for another shutdown in coming months.

“There will be time enough to talk about specific strategies and tactics,” Cruz said. “What I think is critical is that we keep front and center the need to stop Obamacare, because it isn’t working and it’s hurting millions of people.”

In an interview with the New York Times, his wife, Heidi Nelson Cruz, sketched a portrait of her husband as both unrelenting in his views and, she implied, accommodating of people like her who are not.

“Ted is very much a visionary,” she said. “He is very strategic, and he’s very practical, and he does what needs to be done, not what everybody wants him to do.”

Of herself, she said: “I want to make sure that everybody is comfortable. I want to make sure that everybody is talking to each other.”

The interview gained attention for its confirmation that Ted Cruz receives his health insurance from his wife’s policy as an employee of Goldman Sachs, where she is a managing director based in Houston. That answered a question posed during his 21-hour anti-Obamacare speech and revived criticisms that he was trying to negate a program to aid millions of uninsured Americans as he received blue-chip benefits from Wall Street.

During a Washington dinner this week, Cruz himself used the couple’s daughters to reinforce his image as an assaulted underdog, asserting that while he was in the car with them he heard 5-year-old Caroline and 2-year-old Catherine talk about what they wanted to be when they grew up. After Catherine said she wanted to “work with Daddy” in the Senate, Caroline declared that “boring” and added, “‘Besides, Daddy will be dead by then.’” 

“I have to admit, I wonder if Caroline had been speaking to the Republican leadership -- if she knew something I didn’t know,” Cruz joked.

History suggests that Cruz is on the advantageous side of the civil war between establishment Republicans and the tea party guerillas, at least as far as recent Iowa caucus results go.

In 2008, Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas allied with religious-right forces, won the caucuses; eventual nominee John McCain, the Arizona senator, came in in a distant tie for third. In 2012, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum won narrowly, though until a ballot snafu was solved, eventual nominee Mitt Romney was credited with the victory. Santorum had surged toward the finish on the well-timed support from religious activists and tea party advocates.

Iowa’s conservatives have not shied from trying to knock off those the rest of the world may think of as their own. When conservative Texas Gov. Rick Perry was still riding high in the fall of 2011 -- well before he imploded with his own verbal miscues -- Iowa Republicans were lashing him for immigration positions that played poorly in their state. 

Cruz’s appearances this weekend usher in a busy several weeks in Iowa: By the middle of November, several potential candidates will have arrived, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a Cruz ally; Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin; former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Perry.

Palin repeatedly visited the state in 2011, coyly contemplating a presidential bid in last year's contest, but ultimately declined to run -- the same strategy that some of this year’s crop might eventually employ.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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