Takeaways from Ted Cruz’s Iowa road trip

He is the front-runner, and he knows it.

On the surface, Ted Cruz looked as strong as ever during his six-day, 28-county bus tour across the Hawkeye State last week week, filling Christian bookstores and old schoolhouses as he trekked from the Missouri to the Mississippi rivers at a workmanlike pace. He took dozens of shouted questions each day at events not billed as town halls, and reveled in the adoration given to a candidate who badly wants to earn top billing here on February 1.

His red meat connected. His crowds swelled. His applause never ended.

He also has, by most accounts, a first-class ground game and as of this Wednesday, a high-powered super PAC operation to fund his message on the airwaves here. And he’s not shying away from his conservative roots, arguing the GOP has failed with candidates like Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

“There are a lot of Washington political consultants that argue every election cycle the way for Republicans to win is run to the mushy middle, run a candidate that’s Democrat-lite, and every time we do it we get clobbered, he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” Sunday.

But beneath the surface, Cruz’s hold on Iowa is tenuous, a close observation of 15 of his events reveals. He’s on the defensive over his ethanol position, has had his religion and citizenship questioned. And there’s still plenty of time for the dynamics of the race to shift against him.

Here’s what we learned from Cruz’s bus tour — and what can still hold him back in the final three weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

Still on defense with the Donald

Cruz spent much of the week fielding persistent questions not about his momentum in Iowa, but about his mother’s voting history in Canada and whether he was being 100% truthful about his knowledge of what happened north of the border. It was, in the eyes of any political observer, off message.

The son of a Cuban man and an American woman, most legal experts agree Cruz is a naturally-born U.S. citizen eligible to be commander-in-chief.

Cruz told CNN’s Dana Bash that he’s not concerned about the issue. “Of course not,” Cruz said. “Yes, I’m sure. The media, with all due respect, love to engage in silly sideshows. We need to focus on what matters.”

“The legal issue is straightforward,” he added, calling it a “non-issue.” “Listen, the Constitution and the laws of the United States are straightforward. The very first Congress defined the child of a U.S. citizen born abroad as a natural-born citizen.”

Trump does not appear to see it that way. Although the billionaire has not outright said Cruz is ineligible to be president, he intensified his criticism at two Iowa campaign rallies on Saturday.

“He was born in Canada. I guess his parents voted in Canada,” Trump said in Clear Lake. “So if you were born in Canada, immediately it’s a little bit of a problem.”

After six months of never veering off the message of unbridled respect for the national GOP front-runner, Cruz this week said that he wouldn’t be accepting unsolicited legal advice from him and suggested that Trump is “panicking” because of Cruz’s recent surge in Iowa polls.

“A few weeks ago, everyone in the field was attacking Donald Trump,” Cruz said time and time again across northern Iowa, barely containing his smile. “Now, everyone’s attacking me. That suggests something’s changed.”

But the most substantive political point came late Friday evening in a basement at Mabe’s Pizza in Winneshiek County. It was his sixth stop of the day — Cruz had more energy than the press corps and senior staff traveling with him — when a man asked him to directly pitch why he should vote for Cruz over his rival.

“Listen, there is an ‘Iowa way’ of campaigning and deciding caucuses. I believe the only way to compete and win in the state of Iowa is to come and spend the time asking the voters for their support, looking them in the eye, having the humility to submit yourself to the men and women of this state,” his voice racing forward and raising in volume. “And if a candidate is not doing that, that ought to be an indication.”

Finessing his huge ethanol problem

At event after event in northern Iowa, Cruz was repeatedly confronted by audience members who lodged emotional, and sometimes agitated, complaints about his record on ethanol and desire to eliminate the Renewable Fuel Standard.

There was the man in the Casey’s General Store in Manly who button-holed Cruz and wouldn’t let him go until an aide physically moved the senator onto a different voter. There were the farmers who asked, with a pang of concern, whether there was just something about Cruz’s position that they must’ve misheard.

“I’m a corn farmer. I’ve been following your campaign and I see that you’ve modified your stance on the RFS,” Bob Hemesath, a local corn industry leader, asked Cruz in Decorah. “And in reality, you haven’t really modified your stance.”

Cruz nodded. On that, they agreed.

Cruz has tried to pitch Iowans on other parts of his ethanol policy beyond the RFS, most prominently rolling back an EPA regulation that limits the amount of gasoline that can be in an ethanol blend. But these Iowans that Cruz has tried to win over were rarely convinced by those arguments, which they see as B-list concerns to the RFS that Cruz wants to phase out within five years.

At nearly every stop, Cruz would motion behind him and point at the best validator he could, Dave VanderGreind, an Iowan ethanol magnate who agreed with Cruz’s point that the RFS was not the be-all-end-all.

The campaign wants to keep repeating its message, and when the team was surprised to see no one ask about his position on the RFS in Webster City on Thursday, Rep. Steve King whispered in Cruz’s ear.

“Alright, so Steve raised one additional question. He said there may be someone here wondering about ethanol,” Cruz said. “So let’s talk about that for a second.”

Finding his softer side

The scourge of Washington Republicans — he has few friends in the Senate — and of critics who label him robotic, harsh and grating, Cruz is offering Iowans a look at a kinder, gentler side in the final weeks before voters here decide his fate. It is his campaign’s soft sell, its final attempt to show Republicans that he isn’t just right on the issues, but decent enough and homely enough to win their vote.

“It’s not just smart politics. It’s smart relationships,” said Bob Vander Plaats, who is standing a step behind Cruz at every stop on his bus tour as one of Cruz’s top allies in the state. “You’re seeing him being more vulnerable.”

When a woman in a hotel lobby told Cruz about the death of her son, a veteran who suffered from post-traumatic disorder, the Texas firebrand lowered his voice to something close to a microphoned whisper: “My mom lost my older brother as an infant,” he shared.

At Dr. Thomas Gleason’s Airplane Hangar in Webster City, he told Edith Verman-Frank, a 76-year-old survivor of two simultaneous stage four cancers, that his mother too was a 15-year breast cancer survivor. Two questions later, Cruz was explaining to Jaci Bagwell that he understand her worries about student loans debt — he only paid off his $100,000 in debt five years ago.

But Cruz has worked hard over the past seven months to maintain his standing as the most conservative candidate in the field, and his outpourings of empathy have political limits.

When asked in the hotel lobby in Storm Lake by a young, undocumented woman who said she was troubled by Cruz’s new plan that he would deport people like her immediately if elected, Cruz showed no pity.

“Well, listen, I would note if you’re a DACA recipient, it means that you were brought here illegally,” Cruz told her as the room grew silent. “And violating the laws have consequences.”

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