Story highlights

Republican candidates are accusing Ted Cruz of not being the true evangelical conservative he claims to be

Cruz is running ads against Marco Rubio, concerned about the Florida senator

Efforts by Cruz to create a two-man race with Donald Trump have failed

CNN  — 

Ted Cruz started the month riding high in Iowa. Now, he just wants to get out of the state alive.

The self-styled rock-ribbed conservative is under siege, battling attacks from his right and left flanks who say the Texas senator with tea party and evangelical credentials isn’t who he claims to be.

And as Cruz appears to be falling farther behind front-runner Donald Trump, his campaign is now looking in the rear-view mirror, concerned that Marco Rubio and the rest of the GOP field are closing in.

Cruz’s problems were in sharp relief at the Fox News debate in Des Moines Thursday night, where he was everyone’s favorite punching bag. The consistent charge: Cruz is a fake.

“This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on, and Rand touched upon it – that he’s the most conservative guy, and everyone else is a – you know, everyone else is a RINO,” Sen. Marco Rubio said Thursday night. “The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you’ve been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes.”

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Cruz, in the center of the stage because of Trump’s absence, finally got fed up with the attacks, and complained to Fox News moderator Chris Wallace.

“Chris, I would note that that the last four questions have been, “Rand, please attack Ted. Marco, please attack Ted. Chris, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted,” he said. “Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question I may have to leave the stage.”

Des Moines Register cover Ted Cruz

The front page of the Des Moines Register summed it up: “Rough Night For Cruz.”

Cruz said Friday in Fenton, Iowa, that he’s not worried about the headlines.

“You know, we’ve seen too many Republicans that live in the echo chamber of the mainstream media bubble, that live in the world of political correctness,” he said. “My focus is on talking to the voters directly and making the case to them that I have spent my entire life fighting to defend the Constitution.

Hopes to create a two-man race dashed

Cruz and his allies have sought to make this a two-man race, with Cruz battling Trump. When Trump decided to sit out the Fox News event, Cruz challenged the billionaire businessman to a one-on-one debate that would have served to keep him closer to the front-runner.

But Cruz can’t seem to leave the pack behind. A loss in Iowa, or even a close finish by Trump and Rubio, would deal a big blow to his theory of the race, and put him on shakier ground going into later states.

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll shows that Trump has overtaken Cruz by 7 points, leading 32% to 25%.

Most tellingly, both his campaign and one of his super PACs on Thursday launched new television advertisements against Rubio, a candidate they already saw on defeated.

After spending weeks in the fall trying to paint Rubio as a moderate, Cruz had largely moved on, training his fire on Trump instead for the short-term. Instead, the money is going back to fighting Rubio over his support for “amnesty.”

“He’s not worried about Rubio beating him in Iowa,” said Erick Erickson, a conservative personality in close touch with the Cruz team. “But they’re looking now to the future: Does Rubio come out of Iowa strong enough to get through South Carolina and actually keep himself going? And I think that’s got to be a real concern from the Cruz campaign.”

Meanwhile, Trump is free to skip debates and constantly question Cruz’s eligibility to serve as president.

“I’m glad I wasn’t there ‘cause I guess all of that – he got pummeled, wow,” Trump said Friday of the Fox News debate. “And you know they didn’t even mention he was born in Canada.”

Donald Trump: Ted Cruz is an ‘anchor baby’


For Cruz, who has the support of evangelical leaders both in Iowa and across the country, attacks from around the depths of conservatism threaten to undermine his brand and tagline: Trust Ted.

Over the last weeks, Cruz’s opponents have launched a barrage of attacks, casting Cruz as an opportunistic politician, not a true-red conservative.

Sensing an opening with evangelicals on cultural issues, allies of Mike Huckabee released an ad that hit Cruz over his stance on gay marriage. “In New York City or Dubuque, Iowa, there is only one Mike Huckabee,” the announcer states in one ad. “As president, Mike Huckabee will fight for federal laws to end abortion and protect traditional marriage, not leave it up to the states.”

Huckabee: Cruz is a chronic flip-flopper who can’t be trusted

Rubio’s efforts to muddle the immigration fight have mostly worked, with the two senators constantly going back and forth over who supported “amnesty” or a pathway to citizenship.

Sen. Rand Paul jumped on the Cruz as flip-flopper theme Thursday night.

“He can’t have it both ways. But what is particularly insulting, though, is that he is the king of saying, ‘you’re for amnesty.’ Everybody’s for amnesty except for Ted Cruz,” Paul said. “But it’s a falseness, and that’s an authenticity problem – that everybody he knows is not as perfect as him because we’re all for amnesty.”

Cruz campaign aides downplayed the new ad offensive, insisting they didn’t plan to re-litigate the fights but rather maintain the current political order. But the political order is clearly in flux, with Cruz trying to deflect questions about his authenticity with his closing pitch to Iowa voters.

“The central question in this race is trust. Who do you know will kill the terrorists, defend the constitution and repeal Obamacare? Who do you know will stop amnesty and secure the borders? Who do you know will defend life, marriage and religious liberty?” he said Thursday night. “Examine our records, pray on it and I will be honored if you and your family will come caucus for us on Monday night.”

Why actor Clint Howard is campaigning for Ted Cruz

And unlike other conservatives like Rick Santorum and Huckabee, Cruz has the money and the infrastructure to battle back and move on in the race. His campaign announced Friday that it had $19 million in the bank as of the end of December, and his super PACs have millions more.

“Without question, Cruz is sustaining heavy fire which makes it all the more remarkable he remains the leading alternative to Donald Trump,” said Amanda Carpenter, a CNN contributor and former Cruz staffer. “If Cruz survives Iowa in good shape, they are out of ammunition to fire at him in New Hampshire onwards.”

CNN’s Betsy Klein contributed to this report