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May 28th, 2017

Insight

Ted Cruz has a Ben Carson problem in Iowa

Albert Hunt

By Albert Hunt

Published Oct. 26, 2015

Ted Cruz's carefully crafted plan to become the right-wing standard-bearer in the Republican presidential race is pretty much on schedule. His campaign has more cash than any rival's, is backed by a well-heeled super PAC and is gaining in the polls. The Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll has him in third place in Iowa, where caucuses on Feb. 1 will give voters their first chance to cast ballots.

For the Texas senator then, it's so far, so good. But now Cruz has a new problem: the neurosurgeon and political novice Ben Carson. The big news of the Bloomberg/Des Moines Register survey is that Carson has surged into the lead, favored by 28 percent of Iowa Republicans who said they're likely to attend a caucus. Next comes Donald Trump with 19 percent. Cruz is third with 10 percent.

The Cruz strategy has been predicated on a good Iowa showing, a win or solid second. The reasoning was that Trump -- whom Cruz generally has refrained from criticizing -- would fade and that the contest would come down to Cruz versus an establishment candidate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.

In Iowa and elsewhere, Cruz has assiduously courted born- again Christians as the base of his support.

Evangelicals comprise 42 percent of likely Iowa caucus- goers, according to the Bloomberg poll, and have shaped the last couple of Republican contests in the state. Carson, like Cruz a devout Christian, is running away with this vote, getting a third of it in the poll, followed by Trump with 18 percent and Cruz with 13 percent.

Cruz probably has to double that showing to achieve his objective. It's not hard to see why Trump, a thrice-married, one-time abortion-rights supporter without roots in the Christian right, is slipping with these voters, or why Cruz could benefit from further erosion.

But chipping away at Carson is harder. There is no record to attack. Republican voters seem unfazed by his lack of experience, and his calm, genial manner plays well in Iowa.

About 30 percent of Carson's evangelical supporters pick Cruz as their second choice, says Ann Selzer, the Iowa pollster who conducted the survey, while noting that the former head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins is viewed favorably by almost all Iowa Republicans. "Cruz's big target is Carson," she said. "But the problem is there's almost no one that doesn't like Ben Carson. Cruz attacks him at his peril."

That's also the view of Jamie Johnson, an evangelical pastor from Boone, Iowa who supported former Texas Governor Rock Perry until he dropped out of the race last month. "Those evangelicals who care most about ideology are with Cruz while those who care about likability are with Carson," Johnson said, adding that "the social fabric and culture of Iowa is based on likability."

The Cruz camp acknowledges the Carson surge but predicts it'll recede under the tougher media scrutiny that comes with improved poll numbers.

There are 100 days until the Iowa caucuses, giving the Texas Senator some time to build support among conservatives who regard Washington Republicans with suspicion. With that in mind, Cruz is stressing his opposition to raising the debt ceiling over the next 10 days -- the Treasury Department says it'll have to be increased by Nov. 5 to avoid default on United States debt -- without big federal spending cuts and other measures, maybe including defunding Planned Parenthood, a favorite target of the religious right. Cruz isn't a major factor in New Hampshire, which follows Iowa with the nation's first primary elections. But his camp says he'll be an important factor in the next contest, in South Carolina, and in subsequent primaries in the South.

But that assumes a strong showing in Iowa against a neurosurgeon who few thought was even a minor player just a few months ago.


Previously:
10/20/15: Will Paul Ryan follow James Polk's playbook?
10/20/15: If only Trey Gowdy could meet with Sam Ervin
10/13/15: Voters don't like revisiting the trials and tribulations of Clintonland --- but that doesn't mean Hillary can't win
09/23/15: Why Jimmy Carter couldn't win the South today
09/17/15: Gov. John Kasich's standout record in Ohio
09/03/15: Republicans chart 4 paths to stopping Trump
08/31/15: Here's how Biden-Warren sort of makes sense
08/28/15:Trump upends New Hampshire's substantive tradition
08/26/15:Jeb Bush is hugging the wrong president George
08/24/15: Underestimating Ted Cruz? That's a mistake
08/19/15: US holds steady in a world of economic trouble
08/12/15: Who will capture Iowa conservatives after Trump?
08/10/15: Debate fireworks that won’t make much impact
07/29/15: A plea for conservatives to speak from the heart
07/09/15: Ex-Im Bank's undeserved rap for crony capitalism
06/24/15: All presidential candidates should be in debates
06/03/15: Foreign policy traps await Republicans and Hillary
06/01/15: It's small stuff that wrecks presidential runs
02/04/15: Can Walker be president without a college degree?

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Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the Washington bureau. Hunt hosts the weekly television show "Political Capital with Al Hunt." In his four decades at the Wall Street Journal, he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor, and wrote the weekly column "Politics & People." Hunt also directed the Journal's polls, was president of the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a board member of the Ottaway community newspapers. He was a panelist on the CNN programs "The Capital Gang" and "Novak, Hunt & Shields." He is co-author of books on U.S. elections by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution.

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