Ted Cruz got a big boost in Iowa recently when the influential social conservative activist and radio host Steve Deace endorsed him.
To call it a sought-after endorsement would be an understatement. Deace says prospective 2016 GOP campaigns began contacting him well before the 2012 election. (All just assumed that Mitt Romney was going to lose.) The recruitment efforts picked up in 2013 and 2014.
When few people were paying any attention to the still-forming Republican race, Deace was hard at work.
"For me, this vetting process has been going on for a couple of years," he says. "In our world, as activists on the ground, it's actually kind of late in the game. You want to be winning the activist caucus now so you can win the actual caucus later."
Now Cruz has won the Deace Caucus. Deace explains that he was looking for a candidate who can win the support of social conservatives like himself, and also of business-oriented establishment conservatives as well.
"We need a candidate who can walk through the front door of the American Family Association and Americans for Prosperity and, while not changing who they are, or pandering, win a standing ovation from both," says Deace. "I don't know of another candidate besides Cruz that we can say that about."
Other campaigns would disagree, of course, but the endorsement comes on top of a good run by Cruz lately. The Texas senator really connected with conservatives during the earliest days of his campaign; for a while in April, Cruz was in third place in the GOP race, according to the Real Clear Politics average of national polls. By July, he had fallen to eighth. Now, Cruz has moved up a couple of spots and seems headed higher.
Part of it was a well-received performance at the Aug. 6 Republican debate. The interesting thing about that is that Cruz spoke for less time, and uttered fewer words, than any of the other candidates except Rand Paul. "Man of few words" is not a phrase normally associated with Ted Cruz. But when he opened his mouth, people listened.
"You can credit much of his steady gain in the polls to his strong performance in the debate, where many of the 24 million Americans watching got their first extended look at him," says a Cruz campaign aide.
Team Cruz saw a significant increase in support after the showdown. Cruz did a 21-stop post-debate bus tour in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma, and saw growing audiences in each. "He was drawing crowds of up to 2,500," says another aide. "We saw our RSVPs at every event go up by no less than 50 percent after the debate."
But Cruz aides believe his recent uptick is about more than the debate. Cruz seems to be the Republican most benefiting from taking on other Republicans -- not so much his GOP rivals in the presidential race but the party leadership in Washington. At the recent RedState Gathering of conservatives in Atlanta, Cruz won a huge ovation when he was asked what it means to lead from behind. "Well, sure," Cruz replied. "Republican congressional leadership does it every day."
All the things that have made many Republicans in Washington dislike Cruz just make a certain type of GOP voter like him even more. In much the way that primary voters admire Scott Walker for standing up and taking on the unions, they admire Cruz for standing up and taking on Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.
"He should make a commercial that is a montage of people hating him -- McConnell, Boehner, the surrender caucus," says Deace. "He would close with, 'The same people you hate, hate me. See you in February.'" For a significant part of the GOP base, Cruz has the right enemies.
In a recent Fox News poll -- the one in which Cruz jumped up to third place after the debate, ahead of Jeb Bush -- Cruz did better with voters under 45 years of age than any Republican candidate except Donald Trump. He's got room to grow. No one knows how long his recent rise will last, but it appears that Cruz's work is finally making a difference.