Donald Trump, the self-professed winner of all things, looked more like a loser going into the next stages of the Republican nomination race after voters in Iowa unexpectedly pushed him into second place – delivering instead a solid victory to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
With a grassroots campaign that took him to every one of Iowa’s 99 counties, Mr Cruz won 28 per cent of the vote in Monday night’s caucuses. He was backed by a coalition of conservative and evangelical Republicans who yearn to reverse eight years of liberal progressivism under President Barack Obama and to re-embrace Christian values.
Moreover, Mr Trump, who had sought to win in Iowa by commanding media attention with pizzazz-filled arena events and sheer cheek, only narrowly escaped being pushed into third place by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Mr Rubio’s unexpectedly strong performance made him the other big winner of the night, cementing him as the new favourite of mainstream Republicans and the party elite.
Polls had consistently placed Mr Trump ahead, but when Republicans poured in record numbers to their caucus sites across the state, it seemed many had changed their minds. The billionaire tycoon scored 24 per cent – only narrowly pipping Mr Rubio, whose last-minute surge took him to 23 per cent.
“Morning is coming,” a jubilant Mr Cruz told supporters, echoing the “Morning in America” campaign mantra that propelled Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1984. “To God be the glory,” he went on. “Tonight is a victory for the grassroots. Tonight is a victory for courageous conservatives across Iowa and all across this great nation.”
With the aura of giant slayer, Mr Cruz will now seek to build on his Iowa success. Next Tuesday’s primary contest in New Hampshire may not favour him – it is a far more centrist and secular state – but he has better prospects in South Carolina and Nevada later this month. About 60 per cent of Republican voters in South Carolina, where Mr Cruz planned a swift campaign stop, call themselves evangelicals, and religious Republicans dominate in Nevada. He also has a healthy $19m (£13m) remaining in his campaign fund, enough resources to remain a credible contender.
As the focus shifted to New Hampshire, the exceptionally crowded and tumultuous Republican field had only been partially clarified. The most urgent question: how bad really was the night for Mr Trump who, for now at least, holds a far wider lead in New Hampshire polls than he ever did in Iowa?
He did not, as some might have expected, turn truculent in the face of disappointment. His speech to his supporters late on Monday was more or less magnanimous. He said he was “honoured” to have had their backing and vowed to continue. “We will go on to easily beat Hillary or Bernie or whoever the hell they throw up,” he said, before joking about buying an Iowa farm.
Yet the Trump narrative has now changed. He tried to ignore the campaigning rule book in Iowa and came up short. Any post mortem of his campaign will have to ask whether his decision to boycott the last candidates’ debate because of a spat over its female moderator cost him support.
He used Twitter to try to dispel any disappointment. “My experience in Iowa was a great one. I started out with all the experts saying I couldn’t do well there and ended up in second place. Nice,” he tweeted. He also said: “I don’t believe I have been given any credit by the voters for self-funding my campaign, the only one. I will keep doing, but not worth it!”
If party elders’ eyes are now fixed on Mr Rubio, 44, it is because Mr Cruz is as unpalatable to them as Mr Trump. His scorched-earth brand of conservatism promises to eviscerate the federal government and scorns bipartisan compromise in Washington – making him, the party establishment believes, a disastrous nominee.
Mr Rubio has perhaps always been the sole Republican runner with appeal to conservatives – as a hawk on social issues such as abortion and on foreign policy – and more moderate Republicans at the same time. On the stump, he has a rare ability to mix humour and humility with toughness. His critique of Hillary Clinton is often devastating.
The party also hopes that his family story as the son of Cuban immigrants will finally offer some appeal to Hispanic voters. He tells it with relish at every stop. He also recalls the pressure he faced to leave the field to his one-time mentor, the former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Their diverging fortunes – Mr Bush scored barely 3 per cent – is a poignant campaign sub-plot.
“They told me that we had no chance because my hair wasn’t grey enough and my boots were too high,” Mr Rubio said after the vote was counted. “They told me I needed to wait my turn, that I needed to wait in line. But tonight ... the people in this great state sent a very clear message: after seven years of Barack Obama, we are not waiting any longer to take our country back.”
Mr Cruz’s long-term prospects are uncertain. Evangelicals also powered victories in Iowa in 2008 and 2012 respectively for Mike Huckabee, who dropped out of this race late on Monday, and Rick Santorum, but neither ended up being nominated. But if Mr Trump now also seems possibly vulnerable, the window that might open will not be left to Mr Rubio alone.
Crowding to stop him in New Hampshire are Mr Bush as well as the governors of New Jersey and Ohio, Chris Christie and John Kasich. Either could yet resurface in New Hampshire, where some polls have put Mr Kasich in second place.