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Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses, outpacing Donald Trump and Marco Rubio

He laid the groundwork early, as far back as 2013

Jefferson, Iowa CNN —  

In the waning days before the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz, almost always the unflappable performer, began to grow wistful.

“The wild rollercoaster ride we’ve had for the last year is going to be over,” the Texas senator told one crowd.

“It has been a bit of a circus,” he added.

Faced with the Donald Trump Show, Cruz went with an old-school Iowa strategy: Visit early. Invest in retail. Organize pastors. Tend to homeschoolers. Win the two big nods. Get outside of Des Moines.

Despite Trump’s unconventional campaign, and attacks from the billionaire that included questioning Cruz’s eligibility to be president due to his being born in Canada, unaligned operatives until the last moments here remained certain that the core of Iowa caucus politics had not changed, despite Trump’s unconventional campaign.

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“Iowa has sent notice,” Cruz said Monday night, “that the Republican nominee of the next president of the United States will not be chosen by the media, will not be chosen by the Washington establishment, will not be chosen by the lobbyists but will be chosen by the most incredible powerful force, where all sovereignty resides in our nation, by we the people, the American people.”

Cruz’s team, basking in victory, projected more confidence than ever before that a strong showing in New Hampshire was within reach. Spokesman Rick Tyler pointed to Cruz’s cash on hand, lapping the field by a considerable margin, and said it would put Cruz in a far better position than Marco Rubio and others in the Granite State – even as they conceded Rubio now entered with momentum.

Courted Iowa political, religious establishment

It was a victory set into motion two and a half years ago, when Cruz first touched down at the Des Moines Marriott – only six months after he had been sworn into the Senate.

Cruz was known at the time for ideological purity – not evangelical fervor – but over the next few years, he would add to his Christian image, citing Scripture repeatedly in barns and convenience stores as he became more and more tailor-made for Iowa Republicans.

On that first trip here in August 2013, he met with a network of influential Iowa pastors, the same group he returned to last Monday, just a week before clergymen like them would help decide his fate. And he built his own network of evangelical pastors, recruiting one chief in each county and integrating them into a state leadership team that dwarfed other candidates’ in size.

For much of 2015, Cruz visited Iowa consistently, but not overwhelmingly. He thumbed his nose at GOP rivals who essentially moved to the state in search of lightning strike. But he invested in face time, lingering late on a baseball diamond the day of the gay marriage decision in June and at a high-profile evangelical forum in November on one particularly long Iowa day.

And he deliberately and conscientiously identified, courted and landed the two major conservative endorsements behind past Iowa winners, Rep. Steve King and Family Leader president Bob Vander Plaats, who together have been a road show for Cruz during his visits here over the past two months.

Their endorsements coincided with Cruz’s first major surge in Iowa surveys, culminating with Cruz taking the lead in a Des Moines Register poll in mid-December. With King, he had a provocative spokesperson and a validator in the intense boxing match with the ethanol lobby. With Vander Plaats, he had a networker who could stick around to win over the weary (“It’s not that we dislike Santorum,” he told one voter on the way out the door Saturday.)

Great expectations

Cruz, who had worked hard to tamper expectations, had inadvertently raised them.

“You see the poll?” Jeff King, the congressman’s son, who leads the Cruz super PAC operation here in Iowa, remembers saying to another group official then. “We’re going to have to do well in Iowa.”

Cruz’s wager on Iowa stood in contrast to his closest rivals: Trump and Rubio, both of whom are expected to do better in New Hampshire than the Texas senator.

“When he started this thing, he was nowhere,” said GOP pollster Frank Luntz, standing on a chair as an overflow Cruz crowd surrounded him in Ames. “I would use this campaign to teach others how to run a race.”

Monday morning, the Texan’s campaign bus ambled to a basketball court in this Greene County town along the Raccoon River to pay heed to Iowa’s most revered custom: the “Full Grassley,” or the pledge to visit all 99 counties, named for Sen. Chuck Grassley.

“Whatever campaign techniques were used by the campaign that has won, maybe this was the year for that,” said Jeff Kaufmann, the state’s GOP chair. “But I don’t think retail politics, building a political machine and doing all 99 counties is every going to be out of date in this state.”

Trump spent a total of two nights in Iowa hotels, jetting in and out on a private plane for a rally every few days. Rubio blanketed the state in television ads, seeing campaign events as not as efficient a use of time as a Fox News hit or a super PAC media buy. Cruz aides stress that they layered a serious data and paid media campaign onto the infrastructure, but the bedrock of Cruz’s bid here was a strategy that was more timeworn than innovative.

Visiting every corner of Iowa doesn’t guarantee anything, however. Mick Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who won the 2008 and 2012 GOP caucuses, respectively, barnstormed the state and came away at the bottom of the pack. Huckabee dropped out before the night was over.

“It will say as much about the process as it does about the outcome,” said Joseph McReynolds, a Cruz fundraiser and activist, as he observed his candidate work a tiny town two days before voting.

Up to the final hours in Iowa, Cruz’s team maintained a sense of serenity, believing that the outcome’s fate was largely out of their hands. Their voters would turn out. The big question that would decide the race was whether Trump’s would – and that was not in the Cruz campaign’s control.

Worries in late days

There was considerable worry among Cruz allies and donors that their candidate made the same mistake that bedeviled previous Iowa losers: that he peaked too early.

Cruz began a slow rise in Iowa polls in mid-October, but by the time he topped them in early January, he had invited the scorn of as many as seven outside groups, and nearly every candidate, including Trump, who was raising scornful questions about Cruz’s eligibility to be president.

In addition to Trump’s intense trolling and prodding in television interviews, Twitter and other free media, Cruz’s campaign estimates that the senator was pummeled by $8 million in attack ads last month.

And some allies and donors concede that those weeks – rather than days – on defense took its toll, including concerns pushed by the state’s ethanol lobby, who led voters to badger Cruz at nearly every town hall in the homestretch of the Iowa campaign. Supporters differ on the number of points shaved by the ethanol offensive, but they admit it broke through.

Some friends, in retrospect, say the campaign could have been more aggressive toward Trump and earlier. Yet most argue that avoiding Trump’s scorn was the closest thing the campaign had to a masterstroke – nearly every candidate who attacked Trump, of course, crashed.

It was a calculation they never thought they’d have to make. Cruz’s win involved a fair amount of luck: Many of the candidates once likely to be top rivals here – whether it was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky – fizzled entirely. When asked in June about the candidate competing with him most prominently in the evangelical lane, Cruz pointed to a candidate who ended up flirting with invisibility and dropped out Monday night: Mike Huckabee.

In the final moments, an old threat reappeared: Rubio. Trump had pulled away in some early polls, and Rubio began to inch up in some public polls. Cruz’s super PACs, both weary Rubio’s rise but also seeing his supporters as soft, began to target him aggressively. The campaign reassigned all of its advertising in the final days to hold off Rubio, once a vanquished opponent, instead.

John Thompson, an unaligned Iowa GOP central committee member, said Cruz undoubtedly faded in the final weeks here. But the fundamentals of Cruz’s bid, he said, charted a new Iowa path.

“He took the best out of every textbook that’s ever been written,” Thompson said, “and I think he made a new game.”