Conway, N.H. — Ted Cruz says the Republican presidential primary has reached a “new phase.” He’s acting like it, too.
Less than a month ago, the Texas senator was predicting the contest would narrow, as it typically has, to a two-man race between a conservative and an establishment favorite. But it turns out 2016 may have surprises in store even for Ted Cruz.
On Monday afternoon, as his campaign bus barrels down the highway here, Cruz appears to be surveying an altogether different landscape from the one he’d anticipated: Instead of a potential showdown with Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, he finds himself staring at Donald Trump, perhaps the one candidate with an even bigger claim to the outsider mantle.
“There’s no doubt the contours of the race have changed,” Cruz says, leaning back in the leather seat of his luxury bus, surrounded by campaign aides on all sides.
Cruz now sees Trump as the only man standing in his way. The collapse of their détente has scrambled the Republican race, forcing Cruz to make political calculations he’d planned on avoiding. But he delights in playing political strategist, and he is doing so now, analyzing the field anew, searching for Trump’s hidden weaknesses, and, for the first time here in New Hampshire, going after them aggressively.
Cruz has long scoffed at the traditional notion that there are “three legs” of the Republican stool — that is, that a candidate must satisfy economic conservatives, social conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks. Instead, he has talked about the “four lanes” of Republican voters — Evangelicals, libertarians, tea-party activists, and moderates — and argued that he can win over enough voters in the first three lanes to capture the nomination.
Cruz now sees Trump as the only man standing in his way.
Cruz admits that Trump has eaten into his base. “The voters supporting Trump are coming from multiple lanes,” he says. “He’s got a significant numbers of moderates and liberals that are supporting him. He’s also drawing votes right now from some evangelicals, from some tea-party activists, and from some Reagan Democrats. From three of those four categories — evangelicals, tea-party activists, and Reagan Democrats — we have very, very strong appeal and strong support, and so we are battling him for support in each of those lanes.”
Here in New Hampshire, where Trump leads in the polls, the contours of a Cruz offensive are coming into view. The senator tells me we’re entering the phase of the campaign “when the voters begin seriously examining the records of the candidates.”
He is quick to offer them his own help in examining Trump’s.
“I understand that in the course of the presidential campaign, Donald has given a number of speeches on immigration and on amnesty, and yet, when the fight was being waged, he was nowhere to be found.”
#share#It’s an iteration of the attack Cruz has delivered against other rivals — the champion debater and master rhetorician urges voters to ignore politicians’ big talk. “The test I believe that they should apply, and that they are applying, is not to listen to the words we say on the campaign trail — not to listen to the words I say or that Donald Trump says or anybody else’s — but instead to listen to our actions, to see who has been a proven conservative, a consistent conservative. And the distinction between my record and Donald’s record is stark.”
Moments later, Cruz’s bus arrives at White Mountains Regional High School in Whitefield, N.H., and, with snow flurrying outside, Cruz tries out this broadside before dozens of supporters for the first time. In 2013, he tells the crowd, there was a bare-knuckled fight on the Senate floor over a controversial amnesty bill. “When the fight was being fought, he was nowhere to be found,” he says of Trump. “You have reason to doubt the promises of a political candidate who discovers the issue after he announces as a candidate.”
Trump sits atop the polls here in New Hampshire, but Cruz has been climbing. Some surveys put him in second place, though nearly all show him clustered together with the four “establishment” candidates — Rubio, Bush, Ohio governor John Kasich, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie — well behind Trump.
#related#Nonetheless, Cruz’s presence in New Hampshire — with the Iowa caucuses just two weeks away — speaks volumes about his political self-confidence and his view of the race: His advisers have raised expectations for Iowa, and anything but a win will be a disappointment. But with the clock ticking, the conservative firebrand is here in the Granite State, competing for votes among the moderates and independents who dominate its electorate. It suggests that, despite polls continuing to show a neck-and-neck contest between Trump and Cruz in Iowa, the Cruz team is so confident it has moved on to the task of over-performing in New Hampshire, where caucus winners have floundered in recent cycles.
Cruz, who has spent most of his Senate career inveighing against moderates in his own party, has staked his candidacy on the principle of uniting the conservative movement. If he wins the nomination, will he actually court the party’s moderate voters, who he concedes aren’t a natural part of his base?
For now, at least, it appears Cruz is counting on them to come around to him.
“Reagan didn’t come hat in hand and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and play the Washington game,” Cruz tells me. “So, yes, I believe we can unify Republicans, but it won’t be by abandoning principles. It will be by bringing Republicans home.”
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.