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Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses, but failed to beat Donald Trump in the South and couldn't catch up in the delegate race

Cruz cozied up to Trump early on, in the hopes of winning his followers, but the billionaire's numbers never fell

Houston CNN —  

Ted Cruz was always the Washington outsider. He just wasn’t the Washington outsider Republicans wanted.

From the outset, Cruz staked his claim as the “true conservative” in the race, a brand built on standing up to the corruption of the nation’s capital.

He talked about building a coalition of young people, evangelicals, libertarians, minorities and Reagan Democrats.

“Republicans are uniting and coming together behind our campaign,” he said as part of his regular stump speech, at press conferences, at quick stops in small towns across the country.

The plan was simple: do well in Iowa, build on that momentum in South Carolina, then go on to win the so-called “SEC primary” in the South, and build a dominant delegate lead.

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Too many things got in the way, but mostly it was Donald Trump. Cruz cozied up to Trump last year with an eye toward capturing the billionaire’s supporters when he inevitably stumbled – and got burned when Trump started questioning his eligibility to be president and named him “Lyin’ Ted.” Cruz’s outsider credentials – a tea party-aligned senator, leader of a government shutdown fight against President Barack Obama over Obamacare – suddenly weren’t enough. And the evangelical candidate who first announced his campaign at Liberty University couldn’t nail down the evangelical vote.

I spent 2016 traveling the country with Sen. Cruz and his staff – 30 states, from Maine to California. I chased him to diners and late-night shows and even a cheese palace. I heard his stump speech so often that I sometimes quote it in social situations.

Here’s how it went down:

Hustling on the ground in Iowa

Without question, the Cruz campaign was a professional crew built for the long-haul. It ran a meticulous data operation. The data drove the schedule – they didn’t travel anywhere without up-to-the-minute polling to back it up. The campaign eschewed Secret Service for private security to maintain the flexibility to make last-minute decisions.

He built an Iowa organization slow and steady, and by December, he was beginning to surge in the polls.

He outworked each of his rivals, traveling to each of the Hawkeye State’s 99 counties, known as the “full Grassley,” on his campaign bus, and holding up to seven campaign events in a single day en route to his victory in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Cruz campaigned relentlessly. He didn’t fill arenas like Trump, but he tirelessly stumped and shook hands and posed for pictures.

At the end of one particularly grueling day of his 28-stop Iowa bus tour, Cruz hopped behind the counter at Penny’s Diner in rural Missouri Valley, pouring coffee for folks gathered.

“Why am I so optimistic? Cause it’s 10:30 at night in a diner and it’s standing room only,” Cruz told the crowd.

He courted and successfully nabbed key Iowa endorsements and engaged conservative activists and pastors.

I pushed through the thickets of Akron, Iowa, as he joined Iowa Congressman Steve King’s Iowa pheasant hunt, winning his formal approval two weeks later. Decked out in hunting gear and a fluorescent orange hat, Cruz took three shots and killed two birds.

“No reporters were shot, so it was a good day,” he joked.

The campaign housed hundreds of out-of-town volunteers in Des Moines dormitories dubbed “Camp Cruz,” building a veritable grassroots army of phone bankers and doorknockers, a tactic they would use again in South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Indiana.

But Iowa’s win didn’t come without cost. On caucus night, the Cruz campaign sent a message to supporters suggesting – incorrectly – Ben Carson was dropping out, and Trump doled out one of his legendary monikers to Cruz. “Lyin’ Ted” stuck, and would be with him until the final day.

Another round of bus tour barnstorming and Cruz exceeded expectations in New Hampshire, placing third behind Trump and John Kasich.

But then came South Carolina, where Trump pulled out a second win. In the weeks that followed, it became clear what Cruz referred to as his “firewall” was no longer locked up. Cruz won Oklahoma, Alaska, and his home state of Texas, but Trump swept seven wins in states that on paper were Cruz Country.

Wisconsin was the campaign’s last hurrah. Cruz resumed his bus tour and packed his schedule with rallies and retail stops.

The campaign was confident here, and we saw Cruz’s sense of humor and quick wit on full display one afternoon following a trip to a “Cheese Castle.”

A reporter asked Cruz, whose favorite food is cheese, whether he would “arm the cheese curds.”

Cruz turned around on the way to his bus and walked back toward the cameras.

“Now that’s funny. Alright, you convinced me, yes, we need to arm the cheese curds. And you know, if we send the cheese curds into ISIS, it’ll fatten ‘em up and they’ll go down immediately,” Cruz said. “They’ll just decide, this whole jihad thing, they don’t need it, and they should just happily eat cheese curds and live in peace with their fellow man.”

Cruz always wove a few jokes into his stump speech, and distinguished himself from the field with his frequent pop culture references. He regaled a group of teenage girls in Indiana on Sunday with an extended impression of Billy Crystal in “The Princess Bride.”

He spoke dotingly of his daughters, Caroline, 8, and Catherine, 5, who frequently joined him on the trail and stole the show in an April CNN town hall.

01:11 - Source: CNN
Ted Cruz does 'Princess Bride' and totally nails it (2015)

Trump defines the narrative

The campaign tried to counter the marketing acumen of Donald Trump with a tightly-controlled, aggressive branding and marketing plan. The theme was “TrusTed,” and it was on signs, wrapped on the campaign bus, and behind Cruz for nearly every media availability and rally. Cruz’s staffers wore blue vests emblazoned with the Cruz flame logo, “#CruzCrew” embroidered on the back.

The plan was to foster authenticity: Every time voters watched Cruz on television in front of a pop-up banner, they would be reminded of his trustworthiness. But the strict banner placement ahead of every media gaggle and rally undermined its intended goal. Instead of showing Cruz in real places, the diners, the factories, it appeared that Cruz could have been anywhere.

And Trump didn’t need signs or stickers or vests to create a branding phenomenon.

He questioned Cruz’s eligibility to be president, calling him an “anchor baby,” pointing to the fact Cruz was born in Alberta, Canada. He highlighted Cruz’s Cuban roots, reminding supporters that his full name was Rafael. Trump raised questions about the TrusTed brand, and voters were reminded every time they saw Cruz in front of his banner.

Trump’s “Lyin’ Ted” nickname started to wear on the campaign and was only amplified as Trump blamed Cruz for “rigging” the system as his campaign worked activists to pick up delegates at conventions in Wyoming, Colorado, and North Dakota.

In the final week of Cruz’s candidacy, his campaign made some big decisions. It announced an alliance of sorts with Kasich – Cruz would focus his resources on Indiana and pull out of New Mexico and Oregon, while Kasich would do the opposite. Cruz announced that Carly Fiorina would be his running mate, a move seen as desperate and for which he was also criticized locally for not sending her to places in Indiana where she could help.

At a time when the voters were blatantly rejecting Washington deal-making, these decisions only played into Trump’s argument.

And Trump never let up. Even when it was clear he would win, he began Indiana primary day quoting a National Enquirer story linking Cruz’s father to Lee Harvey Oswald, a charge Cruz disputed as “ludicrous.”

Evolving relationship with Trump

Much was said of the “bromance” between Cruz and Donald Trump. In one of the more ironic moments of the race, the two appeared on stage together at a rally opposing the Iran deal in September on Capitol Hill.

For a long time, Cruz would not wade into the fight his fellow rivals were waging with Trump. He played the long game, watching Trump obliterate Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio, and reaping benefits as the crowded Republican field narrowed.

In a late November Iowa swing, a voter asked Cruz why he would not attack Trump. Cruz said he’d rather “heap praises” on the businessman. “I don’t think it’s good advice for us to be in the business of blasting each other.”

In January, Cruz said over and over again, “I like Donald Trump. I respect Donald Trump.”

Those quotes and others would only hurt Cruz as he worked to fight off the attacks from the billionaire.

After a super PAC ran an ad with a photo of Trump’s wife Melania from a G.Q. magazine spread, Trump tweeted, “Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!”

It takes a lot to tick Cruz off, he said at a press conference at Dane Manufacturing, but messing with his wife, “That’ll do it every time.”

He raised his voice and looked straight into our cameras: “Donald, you’re a sniveling coward, and leave Heidi the hell alone.”

The next day, he held a press conference in a cone factory. In response to a report in the National Enquirer regarding infidelity, he accused Trump and his henchmen of constructing the “tabloid smear.”

“He’s not here in Wisconsin campaigning, so he sits in Trump Tower and sends tweets,” he said amid the smell of plastic, his pop-up Cruz backdrop flanked by pallets of traffic cones.

At the end, Cruz, as he said, “left it all on the field.” On Monday, I ran across the street with him as he sparred with a Trump supporter. And then on Tuesday, an emboldened Cruz left nothing unsaid, unloading on Trump in a last-ditch effort hours after voting had already begun in Indiana.

“For those of y’all who have traveled with me all across the country, I’m going to tell you what I really think of Donald Trump,” he finally, finally said. “The man is a pathological liar.”By that point, it was too late. Cruz had already spent the night before discussing whether to move his campaign forward, talking with advisers well into the morning.

The 45 year-old’s political career is far from over, and Cruz made that clear in his concession speech Tuesday evening.

“With a heavy heart, but with boundless enthusiasm for the future of our nation, we are suspending our campaign. But hear me now, I am not suspending our fight for liberty,” Cruz said. “I will continue this fight with all of my strength and all of my ability.”

See you in 2020, senator.

CNN’s Sunlen Serfaty contributed to this report