BOULDER, Colo. -- Ted Cruz, who entered the Republican nomination contest needing every card to come up aces for him, hasn't been getting anywhere near the attention of the front-running outsiders or new establishment favorite Marco Rubio. But things are looking pretty good for the Texas tea partier, even after Rubio's standout performance in Wednesday night's debate.
Cruz built a strategy months if not years ago, and it's working about as well as it possibly could. The short version: If he's the second choice for enough voters, he'll have the broadest base of support left when the dust clears. He effectively articulated this strategy during this week's primary debate.
"If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy. But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done and I will get you home," he said, among the weirdest come-ons a candidate has ever offered voters.
To get that broad base of voters in his car at closing time, Cruz is trying to play in what he and his campaign call the various "lanes" or "brackets" that make up the GOP coalition. Preacher Mike Huckabee, for instance, runs in the evangelical lane; Rand Paul in the liberty lane; Jeb Bush in the establishment lane; and somebody like Scott Walker in the conservative movement lane. Cruz has been working to compete in each one.
And the longer that Ben Carson and Donald Trump distract the establishment, the closer Cruz can get to the Southern-dominated Super Tuesday on March 1. If he can dominate there, he could cruise to the convention.
"That's something they're looking toward," Amanda Carpenter, a former top aide who is still close to the senator, said of the campaign's thinking on Super Tuesday. "Cruz did a 22-city Southern tour in August. It was when the Trump surge was happening, so I don't think anybody was paying attention, but he has been on the ground locking up activists and getting people who will be boots on the ground."
The plan is working out. "I think it is coming to fruition," she said. "It's always been his plan to play in everybody else's bracket, so to speak, so have a strong base of conservative support, but also be able to pick up evangelical voters, the liberty voters, to be the second choice for a lot of those people who may not be able to go the distance."
Cruz's campaign has shown remarkable staying power, and has raised millions from a broad base of small and big donors. The Texas Republican is a polished speaker known for being relentlessly on-message. He has regularly polled in the middle or near the top of the crowded presidential field, and he's pacing third in the critical early state of Iowa. Since the beginning of the summer, he has been on the heels of real estate mogul Trump and famed neurosurgeon Carson, positioning himself as one of the other anti-establishment candidates likely to gain steam should the two falter.
To that end, Cruz has refrained from publicly criticizing Trump in the wake of any of the businessman's numerous controversial comments. If anything, Cruz has strategically bear-hugged Trump on the campaign trail.
"We’ve found a way to break out despite Trump," said Rick Tyler, Cruz's campaign spokesman, before citing efforts to work in tandem with the real estate mogul. In August, for example, the Cruz campaign invited Trump to rally against the Iran deal on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.
"If you have resources, then you can wait it out," Tyler added. "Trump has been a real advantage to our campaign. He has provided us with a strategic advantage because we can still continue to make news, and raise money when others couldn’t. He’s brought a lot of attention to issues Cruz has been talking about. He’s made it easier to get those issues covered."
Cruz's second-best strategy means there's no payoff in going after his current rivals.
"The media constantly wants to drag Ted Cruz into criticizing other people, but all he has to do is make the case for his candidacy, and be attractive to voters who may come his way later," Carpenter said.
At Wednesday's debate, Cruz came to the defense of his on-stage colleagues with one of his first answers. "This is not a cage match," he said, going on to ridicule the questions being posed to other candidates and turning his fire on the moderates, Newt Gingrich-style, instead.
Steve Deace, an influential Iowa radio host who endorsed Cruz, argued that the senator’s strengths lay in his extensive campaign organization and the primary calendar, which this cycle is front-loaded with favorable Southern states.
"I don't think Cruz's fate is as tied to Trump as most people think," Deace told The Huffington Post earlier this month. "They are attracting different voters, for the most part. Sure, to some extent everyone's fate is tied to Trump's because he's the perceived leader, but Cruz has always believed his path to the nomination was being the candidate who can finally unify the conservative grassroots. He's on his way to doing that, which is why he's way ahead organizationally in those Super Tuesday states compared to where previous conservatives were in past cycles.”
Cruz's campaign isn't betting it all on a potential Trump implosion. "We dominated our bracket," Tyler said, noting Cruz's strong showing among evangelical voters and his campaign announcement at Liberty University, a Christian university in Virginia.
"We’re pulling enough people away who are Ron Paul supporters," he added. "If a single candidate can coalesce those three lanes, they can create a broad spectrum of coalition of supporters."
He's working to do just that. In an interview on NBC’s "Meet the Press" earlier this month, the senator said the U.S. had "no business sticking our nose" in the Syrian civil war -- a strikingly isolationist stance for a candidate known for sabre-rattling about affairs in the Middle East.
Last month, in another overt move to attract Paul supporters, Cruz’s campaign announced that former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia would be chairing the "Liberty Leaders for Cruz" coalition.
"More than any other candidate for president in 2016, Cruz understands that the oath the president takes is a solemn commitment to always act in accordance with the Constitution,” said Barr, who ran for president in 2008 on the Libertarian ticket.
If Cruz does manage to outlast the other anti-establishment candidates, Carpenter said, he'll have a strong shot against Rubio, if he is indeed the candidate who emerges.
Largely, she said, their differences over immigration reform will drive voters to Cruz. "If that is someone's number one issue, I don't think there's anybody better than Ted Cruz," Carpenter said. "If it comes down to him and Rubio, the Trump people are going to go with Cruz on that issue."
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