By some measures, it has been an abysmal start to 2016 for Ted Cruz.
The Texas senator has endured birther questions, allegations of cozy ties with Wall Street, campaign paperwork slip-ups, and a relentless stream of hits against his personality, all stoked by media master and GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
“I mean, look, everybody dislikes him,” Trump said during an interview with Don Lemon on CNN. “I mean, he’s a nasty guy that everybody dislikes.”
But while the race has undeniably tightened in Iowa ahead of the Feb. 1 caucuses, Cruz has managed to retain a strong core of support in the Hawkeye State and is actually gaining ground in several other key states. The hits on Cruz from Trump and others may not be having the desired effect.
The media has been only too happy to blanket the airwaves with attacks on Cruz. The Washington Post published over 10 stories and columns specifically focused on the Trump-created uncertainty over Cruz’s quite-settled eligibility.
The nonstop coverage of the Cruz negatives has brought more Cruz attackers out of the wings to join the pigpile.
Former Kansas senator and failed GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole told The New York Times that a Cruz candidacy would be “cataclysmic” for the Republican Party and would result in “wholesale losses” at every level.
“I think we’ll lose if he’s our nominee,” Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch lumped in on Thursday. “Ted is going to have some trouble.”
The 2016 field is scattered with the political bones of former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — all candidates who were targeted by Trump, only to collapse. But Cruz has survived the stream of seemingly lethal attacks and avoided joining his predecessors as political road kill on the Trump highway.
Indeed, Cruz has surged into second place in New Hampshire, according to a poll released Thursday by CNN/WMUR.
The senator, picking up more ground than any other candidate in the survey, rocketed past Establishment candidates Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. They have all targeted a second-place finish in the Granite State as the focal point of their strategy.
At the same time, Cruz has gained ground in Florida, moving from 10 to 16 percent to wrest the second-place slot in the Sunshine State from rival Rubio.
Trump’s attacks have fallen flat on Cruz where they leveled earlier opponents because of the deep well of favorability among conservative, high-propensity Republican primary voters whom Cruz has cultivated for years. Conservatives like Cruz, and that affinity is deep enough to garner their trust.
Gallup released a favorability tracking poll the day before Trump opened his birther blitz against Cruz. The poll found the Texas senator atop the GOP field with a net 45-point favorability spread. Trump notched a far more modest 23 percent, good enough only for sixth place.
Among voters who consider themselves “very conservative,” the highest propensity voters in GOP primaries, Cruz’s net favorability rose to a commanding 76 percent.
An ABC News/Washington Post survey taken in the first five days of the intense birtherism assault against Cruz found the senator’s favorability still the highest in the field — essentially untouched. The poll found Cruz has actually clawed 7 points higher since the outlet’s survey in November.
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Trump’s relentless attacks, and the frenzied media amplification behind them, seem to have bounced off the armor-plated buffer of favorability cultivated by Cruz.
In any campaign there is a race for candidates to define themselves before any opponents can. Over the last month, Cruz has proven himself the first GOP candidate to successfully define his own candidacy before weathering an onslaught from Trump.
But what of the impact of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump? The pundits, in all their wisdom, seem sure the conservative icon’s backing of Trump would hurt Cruz.
It likely won’t. Conservatives are as tired of losing as they are fed up with the Washington Establishment. Palin is the news of the past, and ironically she fails the truest test of a political figure for Trump himself. She is not a winner, but rather a symbol of conservative defeat. Palin reminds conservatives that while they may win battles, they have consistently lost the war for true governing power in the country since Ronald Reagan sat in the Oval Office.
Conservatives want a true-blooded fighter who can win, and truly remake the landscape of a party torn apart by the disparate priorities of its people and elite. Surviving the early year Trump-kreig is a testament to Cruz’s claim on that title.
Assuming he can win the razor-close contest in Iowa, Cruz will have staying power to continue to challenge Trump further in the contest and to shift from survival mode to Trump take-down as he works to turn favorable conservatives into solid votes. That is — if he takes his plane out of the Hawkeye State.