For Ted Cruz, the last voter in the room is the hardest

Story highlights

  • A voter challenges Ted Cruz on his stance on the Renewable Fuel Standard
  • The RFS is a a federal rule that requires gasoline to be comprised of up to 10% in renewable fuels

Waverly, Iowa (CNN)Jerry Calease was the final voter in the final room on the final night of a 28-county bus tour. The rows here at the Wartburg College auditorium were cleared out. Ted Cruz had worked the room to extinction.

Cruz swung by the TV cameras to wish his tired press corps, on the road with him for six days, adieu. He quipped that under President Cruz, the economy would be so booming that they'd be able to afford the therapy that he jokes they'll need if he is actually elected.
"Alright, back to Texas," he added, with a triumphant clap.
Then Calease asked him for a word.
"The RFS (Renewable Fuel Standard) would deadline in 2022," he said. "Would you be willing to step forward and increase the RFS to continue as is moving forward?"
It's an end to the moment of levity -- and back to the hustings. Cruz, who had spent a week answering seemingly unending questions about his controversial position to end popular ethanol mandates here, obliged and indulged.
Yes, he would end the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal rule that requires gasoline to be comprised of up to 10% in renewable fuels. Yes, Cruz said, he knew there were misperceptions about his stance. And no, he doesn't hate corn.
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Calease, like quite a few of the Cruz interrogators over the past week, didn't buy it. Like so many Republican voters across Iowa, Calease said he has deep personal ties to the industry -- he is one of 10 kids who grew up helping his dad chart acres not too far from here.
He isn't angry, but frustrated, and the Texas presidential candidate just doesn't get it, he said.
And under the klieg lights of a hungry press corps in an otherwise empty room, Cruz refused to concede the argument, itching and clawing to win over the last ethanol voter like those who had dogged him since he touched down here Monday.
Calease asked the candidate another question: "Are you aware that Ford and GM and Chrysler have refused their availability" of flexible-fuel options?
Cruz paused. He wasn't aware.
"That specific piece of information I didn't have," Cruz replied.
"You better catch up on that real quick," Calease said.
Steve King, the Iowa congressman admired by farmers who has stumped with Cruz all week, jumped in to defend his favorite candidate.
Cruz ceded control of the conversation to the Iowa native. As he has all week, Cruz was leaning hard on some of Iowa's most respected figures, especially those like King with deep relationships to Iowa farmers.
Cruz's aides, tasked with keeping him on schedule and ending conversations that run endlessly, motioned for him to leave. Cruz wouldn't. He was committed to changing a voter's mind.
The quiet scene spoke to Cruz's intense challenge in the state where he leads GOP polls. He is increasingly under fire for his plan to phase out the RFS over five years, but the voters who asked him for his position at nearly every event often seemed unsatisfied.
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Cruz usually tries to pivot from the conversation over the RFS to friendlier territory, such as enforcing antitrust laws or rolling back environmental regulations.
But Cruz was stuck in the mud, and Calease wasn't letting go.
Calease recalled a bill Cruz sponsored that would end the RFS immediately.
"If somebody brought a bill like you defended -- if you were president -- to alleviate the RFS instead of letting it run through its course, would you sign that? Similar to the one you co-signed a couple years ago?" he asked.
Cruz, usually self-assured, quick-witted and policy-fluent, took a long, three-beat pause. The chances of that bill making it to his desk, he said, would be "very slim." But if it did, he wouldn't support it.
It's been almost 10 minutes since Cruz told reporters he hoped they would have a day off to rest. ("We got to go," his body man whispers.)
He is locked in a conversation that, by itself, won't decide the Iowa caucuses. But the broader question -- whether Cruz can convince Iowans that they've been hoodwinked by the state's powerful corn lobby -- is on an exaggerated display.
King promises Calease a meeting. Cruz aides are able to finally whisk him out the back door.
Calease isn't convinced. He's still undecided.
"Take care, thank you," Cruz says to the barren room, waving and nodding to no one in particular. "God bless."