When Sen. Ted Cruz jumped into the Republican presidential primary, he was largely dismissed as an attention-grabbing agitator with a knack for firing up conservatives, whose long-shot campaign was destined to remain on the fringes.
But as the GOP contest winnows into a defining struggle between the party's establishment and conservative factions, the ostrich-boot wearing Texan suddenly looks like the hard-right candidate best positioned to go the distance, perhaps even squaring off for the nomination.
Cruz's rise is partly the result of methodical campaign planning, but also sheer luck.
The surprise appeal of Donald Trump and Ben Carson has redefined ideas about who is considered a political outsider. Billionaire Trump's bombastic style and sometimes offensive campaign has left Cruz looking more presidential. And compared to Carson, the first-term senator seems experienced. If those front-runners eventually fade, as some expect they will, Cruz is poised to scoop up their large base of anti-establishment supporters.
Meanwhile, Cruz is quietly amassing a war chest from small donors and big-ticket fundraisers, giving him more cash on hand than any other GOP candidate. The average donation from his 360,000 contributors has been $73.
He has tirelessly built an enthusiastic army of grass-roots volunteers and local infrastructure in counties across the early-nominating states. And his billionaire-backed super PACs are flush, giving him staying power even if he doesn't win the early primaries.
It is an almost unthinkable ascent for a politician so broadly disliked in Washington.
At a recent campaign event here in the dusty Texas panhandle, Cruz told the Texas Federation of Republican Women at their convention that he often wonders whether he should have a food taster when he sits down for lunch in the Senate dining room.
"We can count on him," said Deanne Clark, a retired insurance company secretary and former "Goldwater Girl," whose support for Cruz helped him sweep the organization's straw poll. "He never embarrasses me. I know the leadership gets mad at him, but not me."
Cruz tied with Trump among Texans for the Republican nomination, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.
Early on, Cruz staked his campaign on the party's farthest right wing, solidifying his standing with the tea party voters who first sent him to the Senate in 2012. Then he began the tougher job of scooping up the religion-and-social-values flank now flowing to other candidates, namely Carson. Unlike his rivals, Cruz has been careful to avoid publicly mocking or criticizing either Trump or Carson, mindful he might one day be courting their supporters.
His goal has always been to become the last-standing conservative alternative to the establishment candidate — which once was expected to be former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, but now increasingly appears it might be fellow Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
"There is a sorting that's happening," Cruz said in Lubbock. "It is likely that this race — as many other races have in the past — will end up at the end of the day being a battle between a strong conservative and a moderate establishment candidate. I believe the conservative will win, particularly this time."
While Rubio is often compared with President Obama — a charismatic young communicator who trounced the establishment candidate — the resemblance may actually better fit Cruz's campaign strategy.
The Harvard-trained lawyer has shunned his party's conventional campaign wisdom, much the way Obama did, ignoring calls to be mindful of the political center that eventually will be needed to capture a broader segment of independent and moderate votes. Instead, Cruz believes the race for the White House will be won by building a conservative grass-roots political movement, tapping into voters hungering for a candidate who will animate the base and unleash enthusiasm. He has studied the playbook of former Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe. His performance could provide a test of the polarization of the American electorate.
"He's quietly working through the grass roots … like a marathon runner," said Chris Winn, the Lubbock county treasurer who has long worked on Republican campaigns. "We need to be the cowboy again. … It does come down to almost a crusade, and Cruz has the clarion call to the nation that this is a good-versus-evil moment."
Most other Republican candidates are relying on robust wins in the early-primary states of Iowa or New Hampshire to give their campaigns a boost of money and momentum. Cruz, though, appears to have enough of both to keep going regardless, pushing on to what is being called the "SEC primary," after the collegiate Southeastern Conference, a big collection of states, including Texas, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia, where thousands of voters turned out for his summer "Cruz Country" bus tour.
This weekend, Cruz hosted a "rally for religious liberty" at iconic Bob Jones University in South Carolina, featuring students who prayed in school and business owners who refused to serve gay couples. It was the kind of event Cruz hopes will galvanize evangelical voters who will influence the early contests.
And sparring with Rubio over immigration late last week, he unveiled a plan that includes stepped up deportations and an end to automatic citizenship for children born on American soil to parents here illegally.
Cruz claims to be the only GOP candidate to have a campaign chairman in each of the 171 counties of the early-nominating states. And unlike Rubio, who is under fire for abandoning many of his Senate responsibilities to campaign, Cruz relishes the Senate stage as a valuable fundraising and messaging tool. He raised more than $100,000 the day he stood in the chamber and called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar over a dispute involving a vote on the Export-Import bank.
In this cotton-growing region named after a former Confederate officer, Cruz lavished praise on the women's federation that helped send him to the Senate, telling them their efforts could help him win again.
"The power in politics is in this room," Cruz said from the stage, beside a crucifix made of fresh cotton. "The women in this room, you terrify Washington."
Cruz's my-way-or-the-highway approach to politics has won him only a ragtag group of allies in Washington, where he was largely blamed for the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 as he tried unsuccessfully to undo the Affordable Care Act. But it wowed conservative voters at the women's federation of activists here, some decked out in cowboy boots and hats in the colors of the American flag, who power primary elections.
"We love you, Ted!" a voice hollered from the crowd.
"I love you too!" he responded.
But what supporters most like about Cruz — his willingness to fight fiery battles over social issues and lower spending — may also be his downfall among those who worry a general-election audience will find him arrogant and unyielding.
"He's great at making flowery little sentences that don't really mean anything," said Aurora Farthing, a mother of three who runs a real estate business with her husband in Lubbock, and who prefers Rubio, Carson or Ohio Gov. John Kasich to Cruz. "I just don't get a good feeling."
The deliberation among the women here resembled the dilemma facing GOP voters who are torn between a candidate who embraces their conservative beliefs and one with the best chance at winning a general election.
"He doesn't have friends up there," said Heather Fanta, who likes Cruz but worries about his political isolation in Washington. "I don't know if people will work with him — and then we'd have the same stupid gridlock."
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