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Heidi Cruz is her husband's not-so-secret weapon, but could she hurt his campaign?

Except for perhaps Bill Clinton, no candidate spouse in the 2016 presidential campaign has proved as productive and effective as Heidi Cruz.

Beyond the mother-of-two charm that softens Sen. Ted Cruz’s hard edges and a deep Christian faith, the California-born Heidi Cruz, 43, is an accomplished executive and political adviser -- more in the model of Democrats like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton than Republicans like Laura Bush.

Her impressive resume includes a master's in business administration from Harvard, a stint in the George W. Bush White House and a high-paying job at investment giant Goldman Sachs, where her Wall Street savvy has made her a fundraising dynamo.

But also perhaps with the exception of former President Clinton, no other political spouse faces as much risk of turning from asset to liability.

Heidi Cruz’s links to Goldman, where she has taken a leave of absence as managing director of the private wealth management office in Houston, are beginning to distract from her husband’s populist message as a crusader against the moneyed interests of Wall Street and Washington.

“He is in bed w/Wall St. & is funded by Goldman Sachs/Citi, low interest loans,” billionaire Donald Trump tweeted recently, referring to Cruz’s acknowledgment that he received $1 million in loans from Goldman and Citibank during his 2012 Senate campaign and failed to properly report the money to the Federal Election Commission.

It wasn’t the first time Heidi Cruz’s job became fodder for Cruz’s critics. When Cruz attacked the Affordable Care Act, critics noted that he was covered by his wife’s generous health coverage from Goldman. After she took her leave, Cruz had to sign up for Obamacare.

Trump campaign officials did not respond to questions about whether his tweet was targeted at Heidi Cruz. But her supporters warned that any effort to drag her into the campaign would backfire.

“Voters do not like when you attack someone’s family,” said Cruz senior adviser Rick Tyler. The campaign declined to make Heidi Cruz available for an interview.

Even so, the Cruz campaign has tried to downplay her work at Goldman, insisting her job advising wealthy investors on derivatives, hedge funds and stock strategies actually has little to do with the tangled financial world maligned by many voters. They've instead described it as “entrepreneurial” or, as she put it on the campaign trial, “helping people who have achieved the American dream.”

She has used those corporate skills to become one of the campaign’s most prolific fundraisers. She dials up to 30 donors a day – sometimes calling from the sidewalk as she’s heading to and from events. She is “remarkably good” at convincing supporters to give money,” said Tyler, a veteran campaign strategist. “There are so few political spouses on this level.”

Partly thanks to her work, Ted Cruz has routinely had more cash on hand than any other candidate.

Heidi Cruz has also proved to be agile and compelling on the stump, making her the senator’s not-so-secret weapon and top surrogate. The couple met when they both worked on the 2000 George W. Bush campaign.

While he was stumping in Iowa recently, she met diners in New Hampshire. She filed the paperwork to allow him to run across the Southern states and opened the campaign’s Nevada office.

While she was fielding live, on-air questions from Iowa voters recently, one hostile radio caller asked her to defend “sleeping with an immigrant” – a reference to her husband’s Canadian birth to an American mother. Unruffled, she deftly rebuffed the criticism as fanned by liberals.

Those who know Heidi Cruz say they would not have been surprised if she herself had entered public life.

“I would’ve thought that she would have wanted to be the politician, rather than be the politician’s wife,” said Maureen Downey, who knew her as an undergraduate at Claremont McKenna College. 

Bright, ambitious and deeply driven, she stood out at Claremont not only as a Phi Beta Kappa economics and international relations student, but as a strong-minded, conservative woman able to stand her ground at a school still making the transition from a male-only institution.

“Women had to have a certain strength of character to bear up on what was still a very male-oriented atmosphere,” said John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont, who was an informal adviser at the time. “She did extremely well.”

After Bush became president, it was Heidi Cruz, not Ted, who was plucked by the White House for policy roles in the Treasury Department and at the National Security Council under Condoleeza Rice. Rice declined a request for an interview for this story.

But when her husband’s career floundered, Heidi Cruz made the difficult choice of leaving Washington to join him in Texas as he became solicitor general. That transition led to what the family has described as a brief episode of depression. A police report at that time, first reported by BuzzFeed, noted a 2005 incident when she was found beside an Austin roadway by an officer who believed she was “a danger to herself.”

She later rebounded, giving credit in part to a Christian retreat. The senator has called that period “really difficult for us both.” Later that year, she signed on at Goldman’s Houston office.

Toby Neugebauer, a billionaire energy investor who met her after she arrived in the Lone Star State, said he has never known anyone who was as hard-working, driven by faith -- “and at the same time, was so off-the-charts brilliant.” He has since funded a super PAC backing the senator’s campaign.

Raised a Seventh-Day Adventist in San Luis Obispo, she still follows church recommendations to be athletic and vegetarian, but now worships at her husband’s Baptist congregation in Houston. Those who know the couple say their differences complement each other.

“Their marriage really is a partnership,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant in Austin who got to know them when his office was a couple floors above the Senate campaign team.

“She’s winsome in a way that he’s not. She does it with a smile and with an unassuming manner. But it belies a real drive that’s inside her.”

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Pitney, the Claremont professor, said he expects that Heidi Cruz is one of her husband’s closest and smartest advisers. “She is very much a 21st century political spouse.”

Heidi Cruz has said her “highest calling” now is to help put her husband in the White House. But in a recent CNN interview, she acknowledged the challenges of again putting his career first and introducing herself as “Ted’s wife... I used to have my own identity.”

That kind of sure-footed assertiveness has sometimes become a liability for the spouses of presidential candidates, particularly among more traditional Republican voters.

During the 1992 campaign, conservatives attacked Hillary Clinton when she defended pursuing her own career and seemed to diminish women who “stayed home and baked cookies.”

But so far, even the conservative, evangelical voters whom Ted Cruz is courting do not appear similarly concerned about Heidi Cruz’s career or her role in the campaign.

Even in the South, where the Cruz team is positioning itself for the March 1 primary, Heidi Cruz appears to have created a special bond among Republican women by emphasizing her role as mother and homemaker.

Allyson Ho, an appellate lawyer in Dallas, recalled being wowed on their first meeting during at intimate dinner at the Cruz home.

Ho said she was prepared to be impressed by Heidi Cruz’s “rock star” resume and professional accomplishments, but what she remembered most was the senator’s wife's understated charm and attention to detail. Before dinner, Heidi Cruz set out an appetizer platter of artfully arranged cheeses and fruits. Ho said she immediately recognized the work involved.

“It looked very casual,” Ho said. “But every element was perfect.”

For the latest from Congress and 2016 campaign follow @LisaMascaro

For more, go to www.latimes.com/politics

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