On Nov. 13, 2013, one year after his son was elected to the United States Senate, the pastor Rafael Cruz delivered a speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The topic — ‘‘What does the Bible say about why Christians need to be involved in the political arena?’’ — was one of his favorites, and notably appropriate for a school founded by Jerry Falwell, who also founded Moral Majority, the once-powerful political action committee. Over the course of a 30-minute speech that touched on everything from the need for school prayer to the similarities between President Obama’s Washington and Fidel Castro’s Havana, the question of why slowly gave way to the question of who. The pastor concluded by telling his audience, ‘‘God is saying to you: ‘Vote for righteous people.’ ’’
In retrospect, the pastor’s speech that day might be seen as the first (albeit subtle) public move in the eventual bid for the presidency by his son. Already Ted Cruz’s strategists were discussing a run. His longtime adviser Jason Johnson would go on to spend most of 2014 researching how Republicans had won and lost presidential elections, while the senator appeared at various Iowa fund-raising events. When word began to circulate in March 2015 that Marco Rubio and Rand Paul would be announcing their candidacies sometime in April, by the end of the Senate recess, Cruz’s game plan started to emerge. They set their sights on a date in late March, which would allow Cruz to dominate the news and draw a quick infusion of campaign money for at least a week before attention turned to Rubio and Paul. Needing to move quickly, and not wanting to tip off the opposition, Cruz’s senior staff sought out a telegenic venue where a heavily conservative audience could be assembled on a moment’s notice.
That was how, 16 months after his father took the stage there, Ted Cruz became the first politician to launch a presidential campaign at Liberty — the largest Christian university in the world, with an enrollment of 77,000 students. His March 23 speech, which he hand-scribbled the evening before and delivered without benefit of notes or a teleprompter, included this pivotal thought: ‘‘Today, roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.’’ That exhortation, an echo of his father’s plea to ‘‘vote for righteous people,’’ reflected the Cruz team’s key political calculation: Of the 22 states that will be casting their ballots for a Republican nominee between Feb. 1 and March 5, 11 of them feature a Republican electorate that is more than 50 percent evangelical. Even more significant, the first state to vote is Iowa, roughly 60 percent of whose Republican caucus-goers describe themselves as evangelical Christians. As had been the case in recent election cycles, if Cruz could persuade this voting bloc to coalesce around him, then in this crowded field of Republican candidates he would almost certainly emerge the winner in Iowa. And unlike previous caucus winners, Cruz was already building a formidable national campaign organization that could capitalize on an Iowa victory and propel him toward the nomination.
One morning early in January, in the lobby of a public library in Onawa, Iowa, I listened to Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe, as he explained a central challenge of his previous few months. ‘‘Prior to March 23,’’ Roe said, ‘‘if you were to word-cloud ‘Ted Cruz,’ which we do every day — take all the Google mentions and Internet searches, dump them into a file and form a cloud — you can’t find ‘evangelical.’ ’’ In other words, voters were largely unaware of the Tea Party firebrand’s religious faith. To convince evangelicals that Ted Cruz was the ‘‘righteous’’ candidate, Roe told me, his team needed to sell him as such, from the very beginning: ‘‘Regardless of what you’ve got in the bank, you’d better determine the narrative of the campaign, and show that’s who we are, every day.’’
Behind the scenes, Cruz and his team were in fevered competition with Rubio, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum to lock down the evangelical vote. The Cruz campaign courted movement leaders like Dr. James Dobson, who formally endorsed Cruz on Dec. 17 and joined the candidate on the Iowa campaign trail soon after. Eleven days after Dobson’s endorsement, the Texas political activist and longtime Cruz supporter David Barton gathered about 300 ‘‘faith leaders’’ for a meet-and-greet with Cruz at the ranch of the Republican billionaire Farris Wilks in Cisco, Tex. ‘‘He was with them six hours, and about an hour and 20 minutes of that was nothing but prayer, and Ted was right in the middle of it,’’ Barton told me. ‘‘The spiritual leaders wanted to pray for the country, and he was completely comfortable with that, and that was a pleasant surprise to many of them.’’
As a fund-raiser, Ted Cruz has given victory-starved evangelicals some cause to believe that his campaign is, as the Iowa conservative talk radio host and Cruz supporter Steve Deace puts it, ‘‘superior to what we’ve seen from any other movement conservative that’s ever run for the presidency.’’ Cruz has raised over $50 million from more than 600,000 donations, including those from the Wilks brothers of Texas, who also have given $15 million to Cruz’s super PAC: all numbers that establish him as a top-tier candidate. He has built large campaign organizations in the states immediately following Iowa — New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — and has also traveled extensively through the March 1 ‘‘Super Tuesday’’ states of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Though his team is not staffed with the sort of elite Republican operatives who work for Rubio and Jeb Bush, it has thus far waged one of the most professional and error-free campaigns in the field.
The results of these efforts will become manifest on Feb. 1, when Iowa Republican voters will settle the current hard-fought contest between Cruz and Donald Trump. Trump poses a threat to Cruz’s presidential ambitions because, unlike the Texan, he does not seem to possess an electoral playbook, and instead can get by with something Cruz lacks: a lot of potential voters seem to like him and are titillated by the idea of him as president. Exactly two weeks before the Iowa caucus, when Trump himself spoke at Liberty University, he botched a Bible quotation and, against university rules, uttered a profanity, two miscues that Cruz would never commit. All the same, Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., declared that ‘‘Donald Trump is a breath of fresh air,’’ and Trump has pulled ahead of Cruz in some national polls of evangelical voters.
But Cruz’s campaign manager, Roe — a beefy veteran operative from Kansas City, Mo., with narrow, gleaming eyes — told me that by at least one unit of measurement, their tactics were already working. ‘‘In the word clouds we used to do before he announced, the words that always came up were ‘Texas,’ ‘Tea Party,’ ’’ Roe said confidently. ‘‘Now it’s ‘Christian,’ ‘evangelical,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘leader,’ ‘strong.’ ’’
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