Can Ted Cruz, political professional, outwit Donald Trump?

By Enrica Nicoli Aldini

DES MOINES, Iowa – Ted Cruz’s victory in Iowa last week not only showed that the Texas senator’s evangelical base in Iowa is sizable, supportive and strong. It also positioned him as a staunchly conservative professional politician in a race against as real estate tycoon with  uncertain political leanings.

In the months leading up to Feb. 1 caucuses, pundits thrived on speculation about Trump’s ability to attract large numbers in the electorate with what sometimes seems a grab-bad of policies and pronouncements. His signature pursuit of a restoration of America’s greatness is all but devoid of policy specifics.

The Republican caucus-goers of Iowa spoke their mind on the conundrum. By 28 percent to 24 percent, with Sen. Marco Rubio narrowly third at 23 percent, it is the true politicians who do it for them – and that’s not Trump.

The irony is rich, for Cruz spends enormous amounts of rhetorical energy blasting professional politicians. Yet, as a real politician, Cruz had a clearer sense than Trump of how to go about Iowa: it all boils down to the people. With that in mind, Cruz visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties, a mission he completed just hours before Iowans headed to the precincts.

The Texas senator fully credited this effort for his success in the caucuses, and stressed it repeatedly in his victory speech.

“Tonight is a victory for the grassroots,” he said. Early in his speech, he called by first name some of his staffers and ordinary citizen supporters, including a 13-year girl, and thanking them for helping with the campaign.

“Iowa has sent notice that the Republican nominee and the next president of the United States will not be chosen by the media… by the Washington establishment… by the lobbyists,” Cruz said. “But will be chosen by the most incredibly powerful force, where all sovereignty resides in our nation, by we the people, the American people.”

To feed his share of the American people, Cruz played on alliteration. With a stash of carefully-chosen c-words in his quiver, the “consistent conservative” cast himself as the sole defender of the Constitution and the church in the presidential race. His populism sounded catchy, simple enough to understand and remember, and eventually survived the Iowa c-word – the first in the nation caucuses – culminating in a victory.

At a rally in Iowa City on Sunday, Cruz wore his trademark blue shirt, black jeans and boots. Only his wife Heidi and his father Rafael outdressed him onstage. All other introductory speakers, including arch-conservative television personality Glenn Beck and Duck Dynasty star Phil Robinson, wore informal outfits as they spoke of the Bible and the Constitution, to the crowd’s frequent amens.

Casual clothes, crops, church, connection. Cruz greeted his supporters at a barn, out in the fields, and his speech didn’t fail to include a reference to the church service he had attended in the morning.

Trump, the city slicker blasted by Cruz for his supposed “New York values,” seemed to stumble in the fields of Iowa. After he regained ground on Cruz in the last few weeks, he failed to follow up with more thorough grass-roots work. The New York Times reported that not only did his campaign made a weak effort at reaching out to voters, but that the investor and reality television personality didn’t seem to be very liturgy-savvy. At church on the eve of the caucuses, Trump reportedly mistook the communion plate for an alms basket, and took his wallet out as the plate was being passed around.

The race has now moved to New Hampshire, which votes on Tuesday. Trump is far ahead in the polls, a whopping 20 points ahead of Cruz. Rubio, the only candidate who has been able to dent the Trump-versus-Cruz anti-establishment duel, is shown as faring worse than in Iowa, particularly after a poorly rated Feb. 6 debate performance.

New Hampshire, where voters can participate in either party’s primary, may play out well for Trump. The state is also close to his home base of New York and has a history of supporting anti-establishment candidates.

While the chances seem pretty bleak for Cruz, and even bleaker for Rubio in New Hampshire, the long-term question is whether the “real politician” argument will actually make any sense to voters.

Photo at top: Ted Cruz at a rally in Iowa City on Sunday. The Texas senator’s message was carefully crafted to be simple, catchy and appealing to religious conservatives in the state. (Enrica Nicoli Aldini/MEDILL)