Cruz boosted by low expectations in New Hampshire

Story highlights

  • The Texas senator is poised to outperform his low expectations in New England on Tuesday
  • Cruz and his aides believe they need to finish in the top four to call New Hampshire a win
Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, John Kasich and Chris Christie join Jake Tapper for a special, commercial-free edition of "State of the Union" Sunday at 9 a.m. ET.

Salem, New Hampshire (CNN)This small city was playing host to two town halls at two elementary schools just two minutes apart -- one for a candidate who had made New Hampshire a second home, and the other for an Iowa victor who has at times been hard to find here.

But the bigger crowd on Friday night belonged to Ted Cruz, not Chris Christie.
The Texas senator is boosted by low expectations in moderate New England on Tuesday, campaigning almost entirely free of pressure given his rock-ribbed conservative profile. The urgency and anxiety that Cruz conveyed across Iowa in that state's closing days is nowhere to be seen here in New Hampshire, where Cruz is comfortably positioned for a solid performance without any need seen by his team to make a risky bid to do better.
    That calm is a jarring contrast from the rest of the GOP field, which is scrambling this weekend to move the needle in a horserace where a few percentage points could be the difference between second and sixth place. The stakes for candidates like Christie and John Kasich are nothing less than the survival of their campaigns, and the two governors have held more town halls here than any other Republican. But in polls, they often fare no statistically better than Cruz, who at one point didn't set foot in the state for 61 days.
    And when the people of Salem could vote with their feet on Friday in the closest thing to an apples-to-apples comparison in politics, more chose to hear Cruz at Lancaster Elementary School than Christie at Mary A. Fisk.
    "Everything is on the upside here," said former New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O'Brien, Cruz's co-chair here. "The fact that he's able to connect with voters the way he did tonight is going to mean he's going to do a lot better than expectations."

    Looking for a top-four finish

    Cruz and his aides believe they need to finish in the top four to call New Hampshire a win. But almost equally as critical to them has been for Marco Rubio, envisioned as a long-term threat for the nomination, to perform as badly as possible, sinking beneath candidates like Christie and Kasich who have significantly weaker national organizations.
    Rubio's momentum after a stronger-than-expected performance in Iowa complicates that hope. But Cruz's team has, in turn, tried to hoist up expectations for Rubio here -- one adviser joked that he should be winning 40% on Tuesday -- and say that the Florida senator needs to come in the top two.
    The batch of New Hampshire polls released after Iowa's results show Rubio slightly in second place. In particular, a CNN/WMUR tracking poll released on Friday found the Florida senator with 17% support compared to Cruz's 13%, which gives him a third-place tie with Kasich. The three candidates, however, are within the poll's margin of error of 5.8 percentage points.
    Cruz himself has expressed amusement at his standing in New Hampshire, where the final months has been defined by establishment-aligned Republicans attacking one another. Cruz and Donald Trump, the leader in every New Hampshire poll, have been largely spared.
    "The conservative isn't supposed to be in second in New Hampshire," Cruz said in Marion, Iowa, on the afternoon of the Iowa caucuses.
    That appears to have irked candidates who have put in substantially more legwork than Cruz in the Granite State. As Cruz hunkered down Friday for debate prep, Kasich was holding his 98th, 99th and 100th town halls in the state, playfully throwing snowballs at campaign aides and paying heed to the way New Hampshire has traditionally been won.
    And Christie, who has mostly aimed his fire at Rubio, is taking note of Cruz's standing here as well.
    "All of the sudden, we see polls that see Sen. Cruz and Sen. Rubio up. Two guys who have spent the least amount of time in New Hampshire, by far. And because they came in second or third in Iowa, you are going to let them come in second or third in New Hampshire?" Christie said in Dover, New Hampshire on Friday. "If you reward these folks who don't show up here, there is no reason for New Hampshire to be first."
    And Christie's supporters here recognize that Cruz could do just as well as their guy. Christe endorser Donna Sytek, a former speaker of the House, said Cruz's voters were so committed that he's certain to get at least 10% and therefore net delegates. But that doesn't mean he should.
    "He's invested a lot of time here," Sytek said of Christie before his town hall here, "so it'd be really annoying if someone who parachuted in at the last minute walked away with it."
    And some Kasich fans shared a resignation that Cruz had politically outfoxed their preferred candidate. Larry Wilson, 63, who attended both Kasich and Cruz events on Friday, said he was "absolutely not" going to back Cruz -- but said his first-choice candidate had a short shelf life.
    "Even though I think Kasich's a good candidate and I thought he did a good job today, I don't know if he's going anywhere," Wilson said.
    Republicans at Christie and Kasich events described Cruz as out of touch with the area's values. But there is an enthusiasm for him among the state's libertarian and not-insignificant evangelical population, as seen in his large crowds across New Hampshire this week.
    Even so, Cruz may have set himself up for mockery on Tuesday. Cruz and his aides are annoyed that Rubio's bronze medal in Iowa has been portrayed as a sign of strength for his campaign. So Cruz this week tried to dispense with the idea that anything but a gold is meaningless in early-voting states, impersonating to reporters the types of questions he's been posed in interviews.
    "What did you think about the really impressive third-place finish of Marco Rubio?" Cruz recalled being asked, before ending the act. "That's an odd collection of words: 'impressive third-place finish.' "