Columbia, S.C. — “First Iowa, then New Hampshire, and now South Carolina. We don’t know the exact results right now. Right now we are effectively tied for second place. But each time, defying expectations . . . ” Ted Cruz told an adoring crowd here Saturday night, before thunderous applause cut him off.
Cruz was right. His campaign did defy expectations in South Carolina: It fell short of them.
It’s not the outcome the Texas senator had hoped for, and it could indicate trouble for his campaign as the race moves forward. South Carolina was supposed to be a strong state for him. With an electorate heavy on evangelicals and self-described tea-party voters, it was an ideal testing ground for his campaign’s strategy of uniting the conservative base and riding a wave of momentum into the glut of southern states that start voting on Super Tuesday.
“It does definitely put a dent into the manufactured reputation that Cruz is coalescing all conservatives,” says South Carolina Republican strategist Hogan Gidley, who worked for Mike Huckabee. “I think we can put an end to that myth.”
Exit polling from CNN found Trump beating Cruz among white evangelical or born-again Christian voters, who represented 67 percent of the electorate. Of those voters, 34 percent backed Trump, 26 percent backed Cruz, and 21 percent backed Rubio.
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Cruz did win voters who identified themselves as “very conservative” — he took 35 percent to Trump’s 29 percent and Rubio’s 19 percent. But among voters who identified as “somewhat conservative,” Trump had a decisive edge, winning 35 percent to Rubio’s 25 percent and Cruz’s 17 percent.
“In this cycle we’ve seen if you’re down one week, you can be up the next,” says one national GOP consultant. “But he effectively loses a lot of ground both in the momentum game and in the delegate chase.”
It began in the last debate before New Hampshire’s primary, when Ben Carson questioned Cruz’s integrity and leadership after Cruz staffers told voters Carson was dropping out before the Iowa caucuses. Cruz called it an honest mistake and apologized, effectively owning up to exactly what Carson was accusing him of.
As the week wore on, there was a sharp contrast in fortunes between Cruz and Rubio, his rival for second place here.
It was a short step from there to the next debate, a week later in Greenville, S.C., when Trump and Rubio plainly called Cruz a liar. “For a number of weeks now, Ted Cruz has just been telling lies,” Rubio said. Trump was even more blunt: “You are the single biggest liar,” he told Cruz. Days later, Trump threatened to sue Cruz if he did not take down an ad that said Trump would nominate a liberal justice to the Supreme Court if elected president.
Cruz’s response was, perhaps, an even bigger spectacle. In a 40-minute performance, complete with visual aids, he told Trump to go ahead and sue him, called the lawsuit “frivolous,” and said he might act as his own lawyer and looked forward to deposing Trump.
Rubio’s campaign mounted its own offensive, attacking Cruz for what it said was a series of dirty tricks. They blasted the Cruz campaign for circulating a photoshopped image of the Florida senator shaking hands with President Obama. They blamed Cruz for robo-calls saying that Rubio supported amnesty and wanted to let Syrian refugees into the country. The day before the primary, they put out a memo calling the Cruz campaign “willing to do or say anything to get elected. Over the last 10 days, the Cruz campaign has lied, smeared, fabricated, and even photoshopped. We fear the worst dirty tricks are yet to come.” And on primary day, they accused the Cruz campaign of perpetrating robo-calls telling voters Rubio was dropping out.
Cruz’s opponents have frequently accused him of having a “temperament problem.” Trump frequently mocks Cruz for failing to secure endorsements from any of his colleagues in the Senate, and Lindsey Graham, campaigning with Jeb Bush Friday, described Cruz as someone who “does not work well with others.” As this attack became more prominent over the past week, Cruz was forced to step into “prosecutor” mode, as the GOP strategist puts it, using events such as his press conference on the lawsuit or a Wednesday night CNN town hall to go after his opponents, rather than sell himself.
In his speech here tonight, Cruz did his best to spin the final vote count as a triumph over the attacks.
“Tonight, despite millions of millions of dollars of false and nasty attacks, despite the entirety of the political establishment coming together against us, South Carolina has given us another remarkable result,” he declared.
But one of the more problematic upshots of the past ten days for Cruz could be that it has crystallized a new line of attack that will continue to dog him as he moves on: the perception that he is a “liar” campaigning on a dishonest premise.
For Cruz, who pitches himself as the candidate voters can trust to uphold conservative principles no matter what — he spoke Saturday night, as he often does, in front of a large “TRUSTED” logo — it’s a line of attack that could do him damage.
“Cruz’s opponents, at this point, are looking to cut into the central narrative of his campaign,” says Joel Sawyer, a South Carolina Republican consultant not aligned with any campaign. “The central narrative of the Cruz campaign is, ‘Yeah, these other guys might be conservative, but I’m the most consistent conservative’. And his opponents are opening up a new line of attack on his integrity that really goes beyond the issue and tries to cut into the central narrative.”
That attack is particularly damaging because it echoes the sentiment among many Republicans that Cruz is very much a political animal, willing to say or do whatever it takes to win.
“It just underscores so much of the sentiment that is unsettling about Ted Cruz — and it’s hurt him here,” says Gidley.Before the final votes were tallied, Cruz surrogates were already spinning the night as only the beginning of a long campaign.
“Texas has more delegates than New Hampshire and Iowa and South Carolina combined,” said Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, taking the stage before Cruz. And Cruz, he said, would win his home state.
“We all knew all along that this was a marathon and not a sprint. . . . It’s a long ways to July and the convention and we’re gonna be at the top at the end of the day,” said South Carolina representative Jeff Duncan.
There is indeed a long way to go in the race. But tonight’s results exposed what may be a big crack in Cruz’s southern firewall, and with just eight days until Super Tuesday, he’ll need to repair it quickly if he hopes to make it to Cleveland on top.
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.