Can Ted Cruz break into the top tier?

Story highlights

  • Ted Cruz has the cash, but is struggling to break out of the GOP primary pack
  • His campaign hopes to lock down the conservative vote

Washington (CNN)He's got $50 million behind him, a fervent following in Iowa, and a brand that he's worked hard to never muddy, but Ted Cruz has yet to have a breakout moment. Is that about to change?

The Texas senator may remain mired in the middle of the seemingly endless Republican pack, but his allies say he is poised to make his move. Doing just well enough nationally to make the debate stage and showing enough promise in early primary states to have a shot next winter, Cruz and his allies are unperturbed by surveys that show him sitting stagnant.
He is bracketed by social conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, and by Tea Party favorites like Rand Paul and Ben Carson. In order to stand out, Cruz has been willing to step out from the rest of the field.
    "He should be capturing the archconservative vote in a way that he's not," said Noah Rothman, a conservative writer for Commentary Magazine, who sees Cruz tacking right for political purposes. "This whole summer could be setting up a Cruz resurrection in the polls."
    He has become the most vocal defender of Donald Trump, the flamboyant businessman and presidential candidate who other Republicans have denounced. He responded to the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage by asking for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution while others grumbled and accepted it. In a new book, he's taking shots at George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove, one of the tea party's favorite punching bags.
    And after initially supporting President Barack Obama's trade deal, Cruz found a path back to the good graces of the conservative base by alleging backroom chicanery in Congress and backtracking on the deal.
    On issue after issue, Cruz has eyed the far-right flank and captured it. But few top Republicans speak of him as a top-tier candidate.
    "A lot of people did not take him seriously in the beginning, and he's proven to be a very serious contender," said Maria Zack, a Republican lobbyist who set up a pro-Cruz super PAC.
    The chief counterargument made by Team Cruz is the size of his fundraising haul. The campaign said Sunday it has $14.2 million and the super PAC claims to have added another $38 million. If he can continue to tap supporters for the same level of support throughout his campaign, he will likely be able to outlast some of his more popular but less-well-funded rivals.
    As a sign of his willingness to remain in the so-far 14-person primary race, Cruz recently promoted his book -- "A Time for Truth" -- in states that show the breadth of his political operations and the distance he believes the money can take him.
    Cruz's tour took him to Texas, where many of his top donors live; to Georgia, a Super Tuesday state that is home to some of Cruz's most powerful political backers; and ends in Iowa, the first of four states specially chosen to hold an early nominating contest.
    "The more money you have, the more chances you get," said John Stineman, an Iowa Republican operative not aligned with a candidate this cycle. "You could not win one of the carve-outs and still have a shot if you have more than $50 million."
    With an eye on a prolonged nomination race, Cruz's campaign announced state campaign chairs in states like New Jersey, where ballots aren't cast until June.
    But Cruz stands behind a half-dozen other Republican candidates in the Hawkeye State, earning 9% in the latest Iowa poll released last week. That packs him tightly alongside Trump, Huckabee, Paul and Carson. To distinguish himself from the bunch, Cruz allies are banking on deep pockets and an unblemished "consistency" that contrasts with the blemishes of his Republican rivals.
    That may explain why Cruz has so vigorously defended Trump. The GOP candidates are increasingly unleashing their scorn on the billionaire, but in interview after interview, Cruz has hugged him.
    Cruz has said he would not necessarily use the same "colorful way of speaking" as Trump -- who has not backed down from calling some Mexican immigrants "killers" and "rapists" -- but the Texas Republican has stayed, in Zack's words, "consistent" with his principles.
    It also makes for good politics.
    "He senses in the grassrooots -- and he's right -- that Trump is scratching an itch for a certain segment of the party," said Stineman.
    Trump has eclipsed Cruz in both early-state and national polls, and Republicans ranging from longshot George Pataki to Cruz's fellow Texan Rick Perry have aggressively distanced themselves from Trump. Cruz seems to be the only candidate doing the opposite.
    While the Cruz campaign sees Trump as a chance to prove himself as a more authentic conservative. some say it also carries the risk of making him a lone wolf in a Republican Party desperate to demonstrate that Trump is an outlier and not a definer of the GOP.
    Like Stineman, Rothman recognized the politics at play for a presidential candidate seeking to consolidate support on the right. He just wished the tactic wasn't so appealing.
    "These are comforting fictions that a lot on the right want to indulge in," Rothman said. "Ted Cruz, in that sense, is making the best of an opportunity."