Ted Cruz's no-good, very bad day

Story highlights

  • Ted Cruz was squeezed from both establishment and anti-establishment Republicans Tuesday
  • Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said voters should vote against Ted Cruz
  • Then, Sarah Palin endorsed Donald Trump

Rye, New Hampshire (CNN)Ted Cruz has had better days.

First, the most senior Republican in Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad, told voters there to choose literally any candidate but the Texas senator.
Then, a few hours later, Sarah Palin -- the woman who embodied the anti-establishment ethos before the rise of the tea party -- endorsed Cruz's rival, Donald Trump.
    Together, the slights were the biggest potential momentum-stoppers since Cruz began rising in the Iowa polls last October. For the first time after he began boasting that the conservative movement was coalescing around him and not his rivals, Cruz received the freshest reminder yet that unity is still not completely within reach.
    "I wouldn't have been excited if she endorsed Cruz," said Lawrence Cheetham, a pro-Cruz GOP activist here after Palin spurned him. "I would've thought it's automatic."
    Ever since Cruz showed he had the most cash-on-hand of any GOP contender, Cruz has enjoyed four months of even more donations, generally positive press and a close to daily rollout of evangelical and grassroots endorsements that the campaign says speaks to his growing support. His campaign is as optimistic as ever, believing that Cruz will beat out Trump by exposing his just another rhetorician who will "burn" them if elected.
    Making things worse, Cruz is getting squeezed from both sides.
    Palin represents the loud, anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party. Branstad, the longest serving governor in Iowa history, is the insider, and that only intensifies the challenge Cruz faces in the Hawkeye State, where his position on ethanol mandates is unpopular.

    What the Branstad snub means

    Cruz was in good spirits Tuesday, jokingly asking for tequila as he held court with former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown looking on in a "No BS and BBQ" sweatshirt. ("I think that might be the Texas state motto," Cruz cracked.)
    He tried his best to shrug off the Palin snub, telling reporters Tuesday in Center Barnstead that he remained her "big, big fan." And he wore the Branstad snub as a badge of courage, as crystal-clear evidence that he -- and not Trump, who supports the mandate -- was the true anti-establishment contender.
    "It is no surprise that the establishment is in full panic mode," Cruz told reporters gathered outside a general store in that frigid hamlet. "You are going to see the Washington cartel firing every shot they can, every cannon they can."
    Branstad may be a useful foil, but he does have a political and donor network that many of Cruz's rivals found valuable enough to court. And the governor was unabashed in his vitriol toward Cruz, saying it "would be a big mistake to support him," adding when asked a moment later if he wanted to see Cruz defeated, "Yes."
    John Stineman, an unaligned Iowa GOP strategist, said Branstad's attack could limit Cruz's attempts to broaden his appeal to Republicans who are business-minded and somewhere ideologically between the moderates and far-right Cruz backers.
    "You got Cruz's base -- this isn't going to impact them. Those are not people who are looking to elected officials by and large for their guidance on who to support," Stineman said. "He really has no other position to grow."
    Branstad's comments came at a summit celebrating the ethanol mandate Cruz opposes. And though Cruz has taken an offensive posture -- seeking to re-educate Iowans by arguing that "lobbyists and Democrats" have misled them -- his opposition to the mandate has dogged Cruz on the trail, with many Iowans confronting him at events during his bus tour earlier this month.
    Cheetham said he felt Branstad's decision to actively dis-endorse a candidate showed he was merely vindictive because of ethanol.
    "Why would he say that? That's an incomplete thought. That's like saying, 'I'm giving you a math problem. I'm not going to give you the answer, but 4 is not it,'" Cheetham said. "I think it exposes the quid pro quo."

    Cruz's expectations in Iowa

    Cruz tried throughout the summer to argue that Iowa was not a "must-win" state, talking up his national campaign that few of his rivals can similarly claim. Yet expectations here ballooned as soon as he rocketed to the top of polls and rose to be the main Trump alternative in the socially conservative state.
    And even as Cruz courted and landed the two top hardliner endorsements in Iowa, Rep. Steve King and Christian powerbroker Bob Vander Plaats, he lost out on Tuesday to Palin, a nod that would've given his bid tremendous star power as the Iowa match approaches into its final rounds.
    And both Trump and Palin seemed willing to rub it in on Tuesday, with Trump's press release announcing the endorsement citing an old Cruz comment praising her for being able to "pick winners" and with Palin tweeting a negative link about the Texas senator earlier Tuesday morning and writing: "Is THIS Why People Don't Like Cruz?'
    Cruz himself seemed to recognize the bad news cycle before it even happened. Hours before Palin made her endorsement official -- when the identity of the touted Trump endorser was still a rumor -- Cruz took to Twitter to offer something of a pre-buttal.
    "I love @SarahPalinUSA. Without her support, I wouldn't be in the Senate. Regardless of what she does in 2016, I will always be a big fan," he wrote in the early afternoon on Tuesday.
    Palin, the 2008 nominee for vice president, gives Trump a conservative surrogate at a time when Cruz is trying to argue that the former Democratic New Yorker is a closet liberal. Cruz in recent days has mused about how much of Trump's support in polls come from self-identified moderates and liberals, in contrast to Cruz, who draws from the most conservative elements of the GOP.
    And some Cruz supporters on Tuesday were already eager to thumb their noses at Palin, saying her endorsement wouldn't have mattered to Cruz and won't matter for Trump.
    "I liked her gutsiness to stand up to the establishment. But there was no real follow through," said Daniel Richard, who said he thought the whole process was rigged. "It's just like WWE wrestling. They call each other names in public, they put on the big show for the cameras, and behind closed doors, they're all friends."