Politics & Policy

Ted Cruz’s View of the Race: Iowa Locked Up, Immigration at the Fore, and a Looming Battle with Rubio

Cruz speaks at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nev., December 17, 2015. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

Las Vegas — Ted Cruz can see himself on a collision course with Marco Rubio, barreling toward a head-to-head battle with his fellow senator for the Republican nomination — that is, if Rubio can deliver on his end of the deal.

In a wide-ranging interview here Thursday, Cruz predicted that the GOP race will boil down to the familiar dynamic of an establishment favorite squaring off against a conservative challenger after they claim victories in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively. “I believe I will be that conservative candidate,” Cruz says. “I don’t know who the moderate candidate will be.”

The Texas senator says he has consolidated the conservative “lane” of the race — thanks to the exits of Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal as well as to the fade of Ben Carson — and is confident he will win Iowa and become one of the two finalists. “I don’t believe we have peaked,” he says when asked about surging to the top of several Iowa polls this week, and about the potential danger in taking the lead there seven weeks from the caucuses.

RELATED: Nevada Is Rubio’s Firewall, but Ted Cruz Could Tear it Down

Cruz’s confidence owes to his campaign, an Obama-style grassroots-heavy operation that prioritizes direct voter contact and ground organization. So certain of his operational superiority has the senator become that he dons his strategist cap gleefully and discusses the most granular details of his polling enterprise and outreach program. Moreover, he mocks the approach taken by Rubio’s campaign, which is famously allergic to process stories and defiantly dependent on media buys. At one point Cruz suggests that his rival is “hiding from the grassroots” and running for president “from a TV studio.”

And yet Cruz clearly believes Rubio is best positioned to consolidate the other lane of the race. Wearing a mustard-colored flannel shirt and sipping from a paper cup of coffee, Cruz, riding in the middle row of a rented Ford Expedition, repeatedly notes the party leadership’s affection for his colleague from Florida. “The establishment is enthusiastically unifying behind Marco Rubio,” he says. The only thing standing in the way of their matchup, Cruz adds, is Rubio’s performance in New Hampshire.

“Marco is perceived by many to be the most formidable candidate in the moderate lane. But he has serious competition in the moderate lane,” Cruz says. “Look, the winner of the moderate lane has to win New Hampshire. And right now there are a number of moderates who are competing vigorously for New Hampshire, and at this point it is not clear to me who will win.”

Cruz’s confidence owes to his campaign, an Obama-style grassroots-heavy operation that prioritizes direct voter contact and ground organization.

The truth is, Cruz’s team has come to view several of the so-called moderates whose campaigns depend on New Hampshire — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich — as critical allies in the fight against Rubio. Cruz is desperate for one of them, or some combination of them, to prevent Rubio from winning the establishment-friendly state and solidifying his status as the center-right favorite early in the primary season.

Without a win in New Hampshire, Cruz and his team say, it’s impossible to see Rubio clearing the moderate lane of his rivals as the race moves to South Carolina, Nevada, and the Super Tuesday states. A fragmented center-right vote helps Cruz not only by lowering his vote share necessary to win, they argue, but also by delaying the emergence of an establishment favorite around whom the GOP’s power brokers can rally.

But Cruz says he doesn’t fear a binary battle against Rubio or anyone else; to the contrary, the Texas senator says his party’s rightward shift in recent years gives him a built-in advantage against any opponents who align themselves with the establishment.

RELATED: Ted Cruz Is Blowing the Doors Off in Iowa

“Historically, conservatives have outnumbered moderates in the Republican party two to one. That has changed. Barack Obama has radicalized the American people. Today in the Republican party conservatives outnumber moderates three to one,” Cruz says.

He continues: “Seventy-seven percent of Republican primary voters identify as conservative, 52 percent as very conservative. If we go head to head, one strong conservative versus one strong moderate, it’s game over, especially given that in past elections the moderate has always had all the money and the conservative has been broke. In this situation, the fact that has the Washington establishment perhaps most terrified is this: Of the 17 Republican candidates who started, the campaign with the most money in the bank is our campaign.”

#share#Cruz scoffs at the suggestion that a one-on-one duel with Rubio would, thanks to their shared roots in the tea-party movement, rob him of the “bold colors” contrast he seeks. With Rubio in recent months ramping up his outreach to the Right, a number of prominent conservatives have said a Cruz–Rubio battle would represent a “win-win” for their movement — a sentiment that poses a grave threat to Cruz’s operational theory and one that he aggressively rejects.

RELATED: Rubio vs. Cruz: The Fight for Conservatism

Asked whether he worries that Rubio could steal conservative votes from him, Cruz quickly replies, “Not remotely.” The reason? “Marco and I have made markedly different decisions” since arriving in Washington, Cruz says. “Whether it’s amnesty, which is the clearest distinction, or whether it is defending marriage, or whether it is defending religious liberty, or whether it is standing up to cronyism and corporate welfare, or whether it is supporting American workers against President Obama’s TPP, Marco and I have made very different decisions. In every instance he has made the decision to go with Wall Street and K Street. And in every instance I have made the decision to go with the working men and women of this country.”

In reality, however, Cruz and Rubio are nearly indistinguishable on most of these matters. (Both were early supporters of giving the president Trade Promotion Authority; Rubio voted for it, whereas Cruz did an about-face and voted no.) It’s immigration that, as Cruz says, offers “the clearest distinction” — one that was on display at Tuesday night’s debate, with Rubio acknowledging his continued support for an eventual path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and Cruz, in his starkest language to date, saying, “I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization.”

RELATED: How Ted Cruz Became a Jeff Sessions Republican

The hedging in his phraseology offered an opening to Cruz’s critics — it was Washington speak, they said, coming from someone who rails against it — and his statement of blanket opposition runs counter to statements he made in 2013 supporting a path to legal status. “He clearly left the door open to returning to his previous position, which was to give legal status to illegals that are here,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said of Cruz after Tuesday’s debate.

Cruz reiterated to reporters Thursday morning, prior to a rally here, that his amendment and statements pushing legalization in 2013 were cloak-and-dagger politics meant to derail Rubio’s bill. Later, in the car, he emphasizes that his use of “intend” should not be misunderstood. “I said, ‘I’ve never supported legalization and I don’t intend to support legalization,’” Cruz says. He pauses, and shakes his head. “I don’t support it now. I will not support it in the future. I’m happy to say it any way people like; the answer is no.”

RELATED: Ted Cruz Calculates a Path to the Nomination

He seems to appreciate the risk of Rubio’s “muddying the waters” to minimize the differences in their records. Cruz used noticeably strong language when addressing the issue Thursday morning. He told reporters that Obama and his congressional allies wanted to turn “illegal aliens” into “undocumented Democrats” with the 2013 immigration bill Rubio championed — two phrases that many Republicans fear could be radioactive to Hispanic voters.

Cruz’s national spokesman, Rick Tyler, said later he’d never heard the candidate say “undocumented Democrats” before. Cruz, insisting that he had used it often, argued that, rather than repel Hispanics with such talk, he would be the party’s strongest candidate in terms of winning back a demographic that has abandoned the Republican party in the last two national elections.

Cruz promises that if nominated he will win “markedly more of the Hispanic vote in 2016” than Romney did in 2012.

“In 2012, I was very proud to receive the support of 40 percent of the Hispanic voters in Texas at the same time Mitt Romney was getting clobbered nationally with Hispanic voters, at 27 percent,” Cruz says. “Hispanic voters in America don’t support illegal immigration, despite what many in the media say. It is many Hispanic voters in America who are losing their jobs, who are seeing their wages driven down. . . . And to be clear, when I ran for Senate in Texas, I was unequivocally opposed to amnesty then, and I’m unequivocally opposed to amnesty now.”

Cruz promises that if nominated he will win “markedly more of the Hispanic vote in 2016” than Romney did in 2012. He refuses to offer a percentage but acknowledges what many Washington Republicans believe — that 40 percent is the baseline for them to stand a chance in the general election — is accurate. Not surprisingly, however, he disagrees with them on how to get there.

“I think the establishment Republicans who are pitching the theory that Republicans must embrace amnesty in order to win Hispanic votes — and in order to have a chance at winning the election — are engaged in fiction writing and fraud on a massive level,” Cruz says. “The data do not support that preposterous theory.”

#related#The conventional wisdom in Republican circles, of course, is that Rubio would be the party’s most electable candidate next November, owing in no small part to his moderate stance and tone on immigration. But Cruz says that nominating Rubio to run against Hillary Clinton in 2016 would ensure a repeat of Romney’s defeat in 2012, when the record of the former Massachusetts governor on health care rendered him unable to draw contrasts with Obama on an issue of visceral importance to the base.

“That same Republican-party establishment who thought it was a great idea to nominate a candidate who had designed and implemented a program just like Obamacare now thinks it’s a terrific idea to nominate a candidate who agrees with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on amnesty,” Cruz says. “If we do that — if the Republican nominee shares the very same views on amnesty for 12 million people that Hillary Clinton does — millions of working men and women will stay home, we will lose, and Hillary Clinton becomes the next president.”

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