Ted Cruz goes on offense

Ted Cruz hints at killing ayatollah
Ted Cruz threatens Ayatollah Khamenei Iran_00012930

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Story highlights

  • Ted Cruz raised $12 million in the third quarter and has over $13 million in the bank
  • Cruz is jump-starting operations in Iowa and South Carolina
  • Donald Trump and Ben Carson remain obstacles

(CNN)At a ski resort in Deer Valley, Utah, last weekend, Ted Cruz toasted his top donors to celebrate their $12 million fundraising haul.

The campaign regaled its top bundlers, shared fundraising calendars and outlined its path to victory, campaign manager Jeff Roe said. That plan: Take one of the first four states or earn second place in a few, win a plurality on Super Tuesday, and then quickly consolidate the conservative side of the bracket and win the GOP presidential nomination.
But despite moving up to third in national polling, with 10% in a Fox News poll, he is off to a very slow start in the early states. A CNN/ORC International Poll released Wednesday shows Cruz with 5% support in South Carolina and 4% in Nevada.
    Cruz continues to grapple with the continued success of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, two candidates his team and allies appear to have underestimated. Trump has shown staying power, and Carson raised $20 million in the third quarter, undermining Cruz's argument that he is the only well-funded conservative hopeful.
    To jump-start things, the Texas senator appears to be abandoning elements of the steady-as-he-goes approach his campaign has touted since day one.
    The Houston operation is preparing to launch its TV advertising campaign in the coming weeks focusing on Cruz's personal story. And he will open with an aggressive schedule in South Carolina, headlined by a large religious liberty rally there at Bob Jones University in November."
    "It was time to go deeper, and not just be part of the five guys on the stage but to actually go and get your fingernails dirty," Roe said. "It was time to go out and get into their communities and stop having the name tags put on."
    Cruz and his super PAC are placing more and more chips in Iowa, launching an ambitious 13-stop, three-day trip this week in a state Cruz has long pledged not to overemphasize.
    Cruz also has sparred more sharply with his rivals of late, dispensing with the mantra that he would not get drawn into news-of-the-day "Republican-on-Republican violence." He provoked opponents such as Marco Rubio and Rand Paul this month, and inched toward breaking his détente with Donald Trump by saying Trump wouldn't win the nomination.
    The campaign says it isn't panicking.
    "We have a very clear path to victory. I think some of the other candidates have a hard time establishing what their narrative is for victory," Roe said. "We haven't really had our moment yet where you kind of blow up, but that's fine. I'd rather have it that way. When we do we will be prepared to capitalize."
    His backers argue these shifts are merely the latest signs that they're in a new campaign season. The candidate himself has been cautious -- and despite his recent moves, donors want him to stay that way.
    "He does everything with calculated risk," said George Strake, a top Cruz donor.
    "He's certainly not peaking too soon," said Houston attorney Skip McBride, another big backer. "You just have to be around there so you can play on Sunday. And I think that's what Ted is doing."

    Hitting a snag

    For months, Cruz's plan was to raise enough cash to be credible, use that money to consolidate tea party support during pricey contests deep into the calendar, and be friendly enough to competitors -- like Trump -- to win over the fans of like-minded rivals.
    And the campaign has hugged to that strategy closely: Cruz donors loaded nearly $40 million into a super PAC, plotted paths to victory in Southern states that are likely amenable to Cruz's politics and resisted the tit-for-tat sniping that has enveloped much of the GOP field.
    The campaign has $13.5 million on hand, according to its Thursday filing with the Federal Election Commission, more than any competing campaign.
    His campaign said it's inheriting the donors of Rick Perry and activists of Scott Walker. (After Walker unveiled a 99-county leadership team in Iowa, the Cruz campaign felt pressured to respond with its own.) And unlike those two cash-starved campaigns, Cruz talks up his thriftiness, saying he is building at his own pace.

    Is money enough?

    By counting on Trump and Carson to fade and their voters to migrate, Cruz has surrendered some control of his destiny.
    "Obviously there's an X factor with both Trump and Carson, and you can't quite see how that plays out between now and February 1," said one person close to the campaign.
    Yet over the past three months, the super PACs have gone through a major leadership shake-up that some say points to a potential uncertainty about the group's ability to spend its fortunes.
    "You're not talking about a candidate who's entered the top tier yet," said Josh Holmes, the former top adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell and a frequent critic of Cruz's message. "It hasn't connected in the way that he'd like."
    The more optimistic campaign allies argue the sheen of Carson will wear off quickly under the presidential klieg lights.
    "Carson is not a conservative movement candidate," said Steve Deace, an influential Iowa radio host who is backing Cruz and expects Carson to not be a serious competitor for Iowa's prize endorsements this fall. "If Ben Carson wins here and Cruz finishes second, Cruz is clearly the conservative movement candidate."
    Cruz makes his most aggressive play yet this month for a top showing in Iowa, which began with a stop in Fort Dodge on Monday. The trip could raise his numbers but it also, inevitably, raises the expectations.
    One of Cruz's super PACs, Keep the Promise I, just hired field staff in Iowa, supplementing the Cruz campaign's intensified push, with plans to do the same in South Carolina. But the group promises it will remain conscious of the need to manage expectations in the Hawkeye State.
    "Why would I hang a sign around Ted Cruz's neck that says 'Iowa or bust'? Because then there's only two options: Iowa, or bust," said Kellyanne Conway, the head of the super PAC.

    Sparring with Iowa rivals

    His opponents are aiming to knock him off his stride. Two Republican rivals banking in part on Iowa -- Paul and Bobby Jindal -- have in recent weeks sharpened their spears at the Texan. Jindal has gone out of his way to draw Cruz into a fight over his alliance with Trump, and Paul's emerging feud with Cruz reached a crescendo this weekend as the pair bickered over who should be perceived as the winner of a little-known New Hampshire straw poll.
    What is unusual for Cruz are the fights he is provoking himself. Cruz has always maintained he reserved the right to hit his GOP rivals on policy, and in the new stage of the campaign, he's exercising it.
    The campaign says it is incidental -- and not to expect any contrast until the field gets significantly smaller.
    The rivalry with Paul burst into the open after he unveiled a leadership team that argued that Cruz was the heir apparent to the political network assembled by Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul.
    Paul later unleashed an unusually harsh broadside against his onetime Senate ally, saying Cruz is largely "done for" in the body.
    In an earlier era, Cruz may have shrugged off Paul's attack. Now, he's responding with a bit more bite.
    "The attacks he directed at me are not terribly surprising," Cruz said in a radio interview with host Hugh Hewitt last week, "particularly given that Rand campaigned for Mitch McConnell and then Mitch McConnell in turn has endorsed Rand for president."
    Days later, Cruz managed to inadvertently hit Trump with an offhand comment. He said he didn't think "Donald will be the nominee."
    This week in Iowa, Cruz turned up the heat on a new target -- Rubio -- by ridiculing him for not proudly voicing his skepticism of global warming during the CNN debate.
    Cruz allies say to expect more of that.
    "If anything, he's been too gracious," Deace said. "And now is the time he's going to start closing the sale."