Ted Cruz looks to channel energy from debate into Iowa prizes

Updated 4:51 PM EDT, Sat October 31, 2015
01:18 - Source: CNN
Ted Cruz discusses religious liberty

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GOP contenders are seeking the endorsements of Rep. Steve King and Christian leader and powerbroker Bob Vander Plaats

Jeff King, the congressman's son, leads the Iowa operation of Keep the Promise I, a Cruz super PAC

Washington CNN —  

Fresh off a widely praised debate performance in Colorado, Ted Cruz’s first salvo to consolidate post-debate support begins at a pheasant hunt in northwestern Iowa on Saturday.

Cruz’s courting of the hunt’s host, Rep. Steve King and Christian leader and powerbroker Bob Vander Plaats, two of the Hawkeye State’s most influential kingmakers, predates the official launch of the 2016 campaign. But the wooing approaches something of a fever pitch over the next few weeks as candidates of the right like Cruz try to lock down a pair of premier endorsements that are likely to come in the final two months of 2015 and set the table for first-in-the-nation contest.

At the Hole N’ The Wall Lodge in Plymouth County, four candidates who could be seen as something of a short-list for King’s blessing – Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee – will trot out for one of the final tryouts of this primary. Two weeks later, about half of the Republican field will attend a forum hosted by Vander Plaats.

They are, of course, just two men, with reputations that detractors say are overinflated and nods that are more hype than help. But they bring political networks and activist followings that can tip the scales in the 135,000-vote caucuses.

Related: Republican debate: Winners and losers

Ben Carson and Donald Trump have lead in Iowa polls of late, but an endorsement to any of the other candidates will give them a fresh chance to make a mark.

Republican strategists across the state familiar with King and Vander Plaats say the tea leaves indicate Cruz will sweep the endorsements later this year. And a growing consensus, even among those allied with Cruz competitors, is that the Texas senator certainly won’t lose the King endorsement to one of his fellow pheasant hunters, potentially setting up a one-two punch this winter that allows him to peak before the first voters are cast.

“It’s the worst kept secret in Iowa,” said one unaligned Republican in the state of the pending endorsements. “If you had to bet your home, your kids college education,” the Republican said, “Cruz is your guy.”

Officially, both Iowa superstars are keeping an open mind. But there are signs the field has narrowed: King says he has ruled out about six of the Republican candidates, and sources close to the congressman say he notices which candidates are making their way to the corner of a state on a busy Iowa weekend. And about half of the Republican field is skipping Vander Plaats’ forum, a sure fire way to not land his endorsement.

Christian conservative leaders have been split between Cruz, Jindal, Santorum, Huckabee and Carson, who has not made much noise within the two Iowans’ circles despite leading the field in recent state polls. And in recent months, the Republican hopefuls have come in droves, meeting privately with the pair at Family Leader headquarters or in King’s 4th District — often multiple times.

They’re increasingly opting to ask formally for the big seal of grass-roots approval. On Wednesday, the afternoon of the debate, Vander Plaats said he had emailed or texted with three of the candidates already.

Vander Plaats insists Cruz isn’t a shoo-in. When an advisor to Cruz boasted this week that the campaign would be “stunned” if they did not win the backing of Iowa’s two premier endorsers this winter, the powerbroker struck back.

“The Cruz people know better than that,” Vander Plaats told CNN. “They probably feel they have a real shot at our endorsement, but I think Sen. Cruz would be the first one to tell you that he knows its nowhere close to being in the bag.”

Cruz’s Iowa connections

Cruz’s orbit in the state includes Bryan English, once a top aide to both King and Vander Plaats and Sen. Bill Anderson, another King adviser. Perhaps most important of all, Jeff King, the congressman’s son who is now spearheading the operation of Keep the Promise I, a Cruz super PAC, in the state.

The Texas senators’s advisers maintain that he has done little to nothing special to woo the two Iowans who have fallen hard for his campaign, with state director Bryan English comparing the outreach to “the same you can to earn the vote of the guy at the coffee shop at the corner.”

Vander Plaats said he planned to announce his personal endorsement in early December, and King told CNN that his backing would have less influence if it comes after Christmas. The open question, though, is whether the Iowa congressman does decide to endorse — he said he is likely to, but would only do so if he’s able to “reach a conviction.”

“Both my dad and Bob Vander Plaats have a pretty good grass-roots following – and its people who actually go to caucus,” explained Jeff King, who signed onto Keep the Promise I this summer.

King, meanwhile, has sometimes been reluctant to actually pull the trigger. In 2012, he ended up not making an endorsement at all. This year, as conservative support continues to splinter across a half-dozen hopefuls, King said he is more likely to step in and try to make a mark on the race that he described as more and more uncertain.

“It’s shaping up in a way, I think, that it’s going to need a little help to get to a conclusion,” he said. “There’s an equation that has shifted here in the last 30 days.”

Vander Plaats is close personally with many of the candidates, including Santorum, who he endorsed in 2012, and Huckabee, who he backed in 2008. But neither they nor Jindal, who he also admires, has the financial resources to win as the conservative candidate. Cruz, who had more money on hand at the beginning of this month than any other Republican candidate, stylizes himself as the only conservative hopeful with the cash to take on the establishment victor

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What this means for Vander Plaats

People familiar with Vander Plaats’ thinking, including some critics, argue that his primary motivation is to support the eventual winner — looking to support the Christian conservative candidate with the money and organization rather than dispassionately assess which candidate matches up with his ideology.

He’ll want the credit of victory, detractors and fans together say.

“The idea that Bob Vander Plaats could be on the stage at an inauguration somewhere would be the biggest payoff,” said another Iowa GOP leader who requested anonymity to preserve relationships. “Bob is betting everything on getting somebody in the White House that will look back and say ‘Thank you, Bob’.”

For his part, the Family Leader head doesn’t dispute his hope to leave an imprint in Iowa during the election’s final 100 days.

“We don’t need to be with he nominee, per se,” Vander Plaats said, “but our goal is to influence the nomination.”

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