Ted Cruz takes control in Iowa as Republican race intensifies

Texas senator gaining momentum against Donald Trump in run for the White House

While most excoriated Donald Trump for his proposal last week to ban Muslims from entering the United States, one rival Republican was unusually careful in his rejection of the plan: Ted Cruz.

The 44-year-old Texas senator, who has for months made a point of not criticising the Republican frontrunner for his repeated inflammatory remarks, stopped short of condemning Trump.

“I disagree with that proposal,” said Cruz. “A lot of our friends have encouraged me to criticise and attack Donald Trump. I’m not interested in doing so. I commend Donald Trump for standing up and focusing America’s attention on the need to secure our borders.”

Trump and the surging Republican senator, a conservative agitator who has become a regular disrupter of congressional business during his three years in the Senate, had embraced each other for months during the heated campaign to pick the party's presidential nominee.


Cracks have appeared in their relationship in recent days, coinciding with Cruz leapfrogging Trump in polls among Republicans in Iowa, the first state to pick nominees in the state's caucuses on February 1st. Cruz is fast becoming the dark-horse candidate.

A poll by Iowa's Des Moines Register and Bloomberg at the weekend put Cruz at 31 per cent support among Iowa's Republican caucus-goers, a rise of a whopping 21 points since October, compared with Trump's 21 per cent. Nationally, Cruz's numbers are also rising.

The New York Times obtained a recording of Cruz speaking at a private fundraiser last week explaining his go-soft strategy on Trump and Ben Carson, another outsider who had been faring well in polls. "My approach, much to the frustration of the media, is to bear-hug both of them and smother them with love," Cruz said. "I believe that gravity will bring both of those candidates down."

He queried their fitness as “commander-in-chief” after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, saying there was a “seriousness to this race”.

The love affair between Cruz and Trump is likely to be well and truly over by the time they meet on stage at the fifth Republican presidential debate on Tuesday night in Las Vegas. Trump recognises that Cruz is his biggest challenger for evangelicals and Republican voters who blame Washington insiders and big government for the country's ills.

“He’s been so nice to me. I mean I can say anything, and he said, ‘I agree, I agree,’” Trump told a CNN Sunday talk show. “But I think the time will come to an end pretty soon.”

The Canadian-born Cruz, the son of a Cuban father and Irish-Italian mother, has run a well-organised and well-funded campaign. He is a skilled debater and a dyed-in-the-wool conservative on immigration, social issues, religious liberty and security, aligning him with the hardliners who dominate Republican voting in the Iowa.

While Trump has been noisier, Cruz is out on the right flank too – on some issues further to the right – but he has made his pitch in a more electable and less incendiary manner.

He is best placed to capitalise on Trump slipping in the polls. The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll found that among those who said they supported Trump, 73 per cent said they viewed Cruz favourably, while 49 per cent picked him as their second-choice candidate.

Unlike previous candidates who appealed to the religious right and won in Iowa – former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in 2012 – Cruz has amassed large campaign funds of $26.5 million (€24.1 million) and $38 million in "dark money" raised by political action committees to capitalise on an Iowa win in later races.

He has the endorsement of an influential Christian conservative in Iowa, Bob Vander Plaats, that puts him in poll position to win evangelical voters. (Plaats backed Huckabee and Santorum.)

The Cruz camp believes he can win over Christian conservatives who didn't vote for Mitt Romney in 2012 and the anti-establishment non-voters Trump has mobilised so successfully.

Before this race, Cruz's standing as the Senate's great obstructionist helped raise his national profile. He led the opposition against Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act that shut down the government in 2013. He spoke for 21 hours in a filibuster of Obamacare, reading Dr Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham to his daughters watching at home and doing Star Wars impersonations during his bladder-straining speech.

On Sunday Trump called Cruz "a little bit of a maniac" for his divisive behaviour in the Senate. Cruz, whose podium will be next to Trump's at the debate because of their poll figures, later tweeted a video link to the song Maniac from the film Flashdance, dedicating it to Trump and "good-hearted maniacs everywhere".

Their dance-off on Tuesday night should be equally intense.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent