For a guy that nobody likes, Ted Cruz sure seems popular. On Thursday morning, at the upscale Siena retirement community in suburban Las Vegas, it was standing room only for the Texas senator’s latest campaign event. One elderly lady with a hip replacement complained she couldn’t find a seat in the 500-capacity venue, despite being a member of the local conservative club.
Siena was the first stop on the “Cruz Country Christmas Tour”, a week-long swing through eight key presidential primary states, intended to capitalise on the senator’s performance at the fifth Republican debate on Tuesday. Mr Cruz may be widely disliked in Washington DC, by Democrats and Republicans alike, but on the campaign trail he wears that animosity as a badge of honour.
Dressed down in blue jeans, plaid shirt and cowboy boots buffed to a shine, the Tea Party favourite tossed conservative buzz-phrases to the crowd like dead fish to hungry seals, earning raucous applause with his promises to “rebuild the military”, to “secure the borders”, to restore “religious liberty”, to introduce “a simple, flat tax” and, of course, to “repeal Obamacare”.
Bonnie Walker, 44, who works in the gambling industry and opposes gun control and gay marriage, has long admired the cut of Mr Cruz’s jib. “There’s not a single thing he has said so far that I disagree with,” she said as she waited for the candidate to make his appearance. “He’s a class act. He hasn’t attacked anyone – and he stays calm, cool and collected when people attack him.”
She is far from alone in her admiration. In national polls of Republican voters, Mr Cruz is now second only to Donald Trump. Some put him a nose ahead of the property mogul in Iowa, the first primary state. Many believe the nomination race will ultimately come down to a battle not between Messrs Cruz and Trump, but between Mr Cruz and another freshman senator, Marco Rubio.
During Tuesday’s televised debate in Las Vegas, the two men went head-to-head on several issues including surveillance, foreign policy and immigration. In 2013 Mr Rubio co-sponsored a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already living in the US, a policy that Mr Cruz characterises as “amnesty”.
Though Mr Rubio has since walked back his support for the 2013 bill, the Florida senator remains open to attacks from the right on immigration – and his rival has rushed into that opening. “I oppose amnesty,” Mr Cruz insisted to reporters before his event on Thursday. “I oppose citizenship. I oppose legalisation for illegal aliens. I always have and I always will.”
Immigration is a personal issue for Mr Cruz and for Mr Rubio, both youthful presidential hopefuls at 44, and both the children of immigrants. Mr Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father, Rafael, who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba as a teenager. Cruz Sr is now a pastor, and a helpful proxy for his son’s courtship of the evangelical vote.
Mr Cruz is nevertheless an immigration hardliner. He has stood out from his adversaries in refusing to condemn Mr Trump’s proposal for a temporary ban on all Muslim visitors to the US in the wake of the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino. Instead he suggested a narrower plan, which would block any refugees from countries where Isis holds territory, namely Syria and Iraq.
The Texan’s response to the Trump phenomenon is calculated. As other Republican contenders have criticised the controversial billionaire, Mr Cruz has gently embraced him, while positioning himself as the thinking person’s outsider: Trump, but smarter; Ben Carson, but saner. When those hot air candidacies fall to earth, Mr Cruz believes he can scoop up their supporters.
In fact, his résumé is hardly more outsider than Hillary Clinton’s. He has degrees from Princeton and Harvard, worked as a clerk for a US Supreme Court Justice, advised the 2000 Bush campaign on domestic policy, enjoyed spells at two top legal and lobbying firms and spent five years as the Solicitor General of Texas before he was elected to the US Senate in 2012.
Mr Cruz is anti-establishment only insofar as the establishment is anti-Mr Cruz. His senate colleagues are said to find him obnoxious and attention-seeking. The Republican party leadership was apparently apoplectic when the rookie senator almost single-handedly shut down the US government for 16 days in 2013 in a futile bid to defund Obamacare.
Personal appeal has never been Mr Cruz’s strong suit. His former boss George W Bush told party donors at a private gathering in October that he “just doesn’t like the guy”. Craig Mazin, a screenwriter who was his college roommate, has said: “I have plenty of problems with his politics, but truthfully his personality is so awful that 99 per cent of why I hate him is just his personality.”
At a previous Republican debate, Mr Cruz admitted, “If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy.” On the other hand, he is undoubtedly smart, professional and meticulously prepared. As one Washington reporter who has followed the Senator’s career closely put it, “he can always find an escape hatch” from a journalist’s difficult question.
Bill Evans, a 74-year-old retiree from Henderson, Nevada, said he had taken a liking to Mr Cruz at a previous campaign event and would probably support him in the state’s Republican caucus in February. “In my opinion, he is a guy you’d want to have a beer with,” Mr Evans said. “In fact, I have a picture of myself with him where I’m holding a beer. I think he’s very open and congenial.”
That is precisely the impression Mr Cruz hopes to create, painting Mr Rubio as a darling of the pundit class and himself as the choice of the grassroots. “Nobody is going to win a presidential campaign by camping out in New York and Washington DC and running a media campaign,” he said. “Campaigns are about seeking the support of the voters... You have to look them in the eyes.”
Thanks to impressive fundraising and judicious spending, Mr Cruz emerged from the last quarter with a heavier campaign war-chest than any of his Republican rivals. Back in March, as he became the very first candidate to enter the 2016 race, many observers were quick to write him off. Nine months later, it is no longer implausible that the Texan could be the last man standing.
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