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Story highlights

Ted Cruz is attempting the politically risky tactic of changing Iowans' minds on ethanol

Cruz is turning the issue to focus on his push to break from the Washington Cartel

(CNN) —  

Ted Cruz is asking Iowans to abandon a deeply held personal and economic belief intertwined with their agricultural way of life: that the nation’s ethanol mandates are a force for good.

It is a politically risky tactic. Even as Cruz tries to lock up voters in the crucial early voting state, he’s been put on the defensive thanks to a powerful interest group following him everywhere he goes and rivals quick to attack his opposition to the popular subsidy.

He waded fully into the cold waters on Wednesday, with an op-ed in the Des Moines Register, pitching himself as a pro-farmer truth-sayer fighting against a corps of lobbyists hoodwinking Iowa Republicans.

Cruz is attempting to reframe the regional debate from one over the wisdom of ethanol in Corn Country to his central campaign of keeping voters safe from special interests that he terms “the Washington Cartel.”

“By this point in the campaign, many readers will have seen the furious coordinated effort being waged by Democrats and big-money lobbyists, who are together spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to convince Iowans that I oppose ethanol,” Cruz wrote Wednesday. “Their charges are utter nonsense.”

Led by a politically connected nonprofit, Americans for a Renewable Future, the ethanol lobby is hitting radio airwaves, mailboxes and, on Cruz’s most recent tour, his campaign events, loudly telling Iowans that the state’s new front-runner is out of touch with one of its leading industries.

Polls show that about 60% of Iowans are supportive of ethanol mandates like the Renewable Fuel Standard, which Cruz opposes. And at retail stops and town halls across the northern part of the state this week, Iowans repeatedly asked concerned questions about Cruz’s position, with Cruz and allies seeking to soothe worries that Cruz would promote the oil fields of the state where he lives over the corn fields of the state that he needs.

Cruz, who won ideological admirers when he attended a high-profile agricultural summit in March and refused to endorse the RFS in front of an unfriendly crowd, has not shied away from his unpopular stance. But in recent days, he has tried to finesse the complicated politics, and at least try to avoid angering voters.

Julie French, who runs a farm with her husband, asked Cruz on Wednesday in Cherokee to defend his position, and wasn’t immediately pleased with his answer.

“Are you planning to jerk the rug out from underneath us? Or are you going to let it expire in 2022?” she asked him, calling for input from Cruz’s Iowa endorser and subsidy champion, Rep. Steve King.

“Ethanol does not get any subsidies. Steve King, you know that,” she said.

“The lobbyists are trying the best they can to snooker the people of Iowa,” Cruz told French. “I don’t want Iowa dependent on Washington. I don’t think Iowa farmer want to be dependent on Washington.”

As a way of appealing to Iowans, Cruz has tried to shift attention away from the RFS, the highest-profile policy difference between Cruz and the local industry, toward his plans to roll back Environmental Protection Agency regulations on certain ethanol blends and to vigorously pursue antitrust cases to open up new markets.

And for a brief moment on Wednesday, Cruz received some encouraging news. Americans for a Renewable Future, the nonprofit, pro-ethanol subsidy group which only on Monday had pledged to “expose Cruz’s anti-job, anti-farmer crusade,” told reporters that his recent moves had eased some of their concerns. Cruz had told a crowd in Sioux Center on Monday evening that he would support phasing out the RFS not immediately, but by 2022, according to the group.

“While not perfect, this is a big step forward by Sen. Cruz,” the group’s president, Eric Branstad – the popular Republican governor’s son – said in a statement.

The group said it wouldn’t stop following him around the campaign trail or reminding reporters that he wasn’t as strong on the issue as his GOP rivals, though.

But just a few hours later, Cruz took umbrage at the idea that he had shifted his position at all.

“I recognize that there was an attack press release that was put out by a bunch of lobbyists and Democrats attacking me,” Cruz told reporters in Spencer on Wednesday evening. “And I know this is a shocking position for you that a group of lobbyists and Democrats who me say something that is not true.”

Aides said Wednesday that Cruz has always supported a five-year sunset for the RFS, pointing to a comprehensive energy bill Cruz introduced in the Senate.

But the dust-up offered fresh fodder for other candidates who have labored to portray Cruz as less than consistent.

“Another day, another flip-flop from Sen. Ted Cruz,” said Joe Pounder, a spokesman for rival GOP candidate Marco Rubio. “Only a few months ago, Sen. Cruz used his opposition to the Renewable Fuel Standard calling for it to be phased out before 2022 as a prime example of him not being a career politician. Today, he changed his position.”

Kerby Todd, who stood to question Cruz about his position in an Iowa hotel lobby, perhaps showed best the struggle even Cruz’s own supporters must put to rest.

“I agree with your point about a free market,” he told Cruz. “But I don’t agree with the point that we should change the fundamentals that this industry was built on.”

CNN’s Betsy Klein contributed to this report.