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SPECIAL REPORT: Cruz and Trump dominate the lead-up to Iowa Caucuses

With only half a month to go until the Iowa caucuses, all eyes seem to be on this key Midwestern state best known for its agrarian economy and conservative social values.

Iowa shares the presidential race spotlight with tiny New Hampshire, but the unique qualities of its caucuses give The Hawkeye State a flavor all its own. With this year’s voting moved back again to February (in 2012 the Iowa Caucusescaucuses were held on January 3rd), there’s basically a whole extra month for candidates to canvas its 99 counties – and the competitors are taking advantage…for the most part.

A quick look at the Real Clear Politics average for the state reveals a virtual tie atop the Republican race with Ted Cruz maintaining a half-point lead over Donald Trump (27.3 to 26.8). In other words, it’s neck-and-neck deep into the stretch run.

Marco Rubio leads the establishment faction in a distant third at 13.3 percent and one time leader Ben Carson has faded to fourth at 8.8 percent.

Naturally, most of the attention at this point is focused on the two-man race between Trump and Cruz. Both can lay claim to the state’s preference for an anti-establishment “outsider” candidate and both have led in the polls for significant periods of time. They’re no flash-in-the-pan candidates.

With that in mind, here are some themes as the clock ticks down to Caucus Night, February 1.

Ted Cruz’s campaign style seems the best fit for Iowa

The Ted Cruz campaign has made it no secret that Iowa is extremely important to their overall strategy and have accordingly allocated significant time to the type of one-on-one campaigning that’s necessary to do well there.

Take for example this story from Teddy Schleifer of CNN, who recounts Cruz’s willingness to stay after events to speak personally with any voter who has questions, in this case concerning the candidate’s position on the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Schleifer reports, “And under the klieg lights of a hungry press corps in an otherwise empty room, Cruz refused to concede the argument, itching and clawing to win over the last ethanol voter like those who had dogged him since he touched down here Monday.”

The article itself isn’t overly flattering to Cruz but highlights a key aspect of the Texas senator’s appeal to Iowa voters – namely, he’s willing to put in the effort to discuss minute details of policy, even keeping journalists and staffers waiting at the end of a long day to try and convince a skeptic.

Katie Zezima of the Washington Post followed Cruz for months and she agrees he puts in the extra time when necessary. “Cruz's wife insists that he is shy, but he spends a whole lot of time meeting voters after his speeches. He tends to run behind, in part because he spends so much time shaking hands, doling out hugs and signing copies of his book or a pocket-size version of the Constitution, with his photo on the cover, that the campaign gives away at many events…

“[D]ata is a key component to his campaign, which is employing a sophisticated analytics system it thinks will help him win. A poker and chess player, he also likes strategy. His answers to questions about his campaign sometimes sound like political strategy sessions complete with talk of delegate counts as a way to prove that he can win.”

Like Schleifer’s account, Zezima’s is hardly a puff piece on Cruz, but it does reinforce his strong attributes in Iowa.

Cruz is an enthusiastic campaigner who enjoys the back and forth of ideas, a perfect fit for the discerning voters that are found there.

Trump supporters show up by the thousands for rallies, but will they vote?

Ever since Donald Trump gave his controversial (at least to the politically correct crowd) announcement speech last June, he’s drawn huge crowds to his campaign appearances.

The trend continues in Iowa and The Donald seems to relish the attention. His stream-of-consciousness unscripted speeches sometimes wander off topic, but his backers seem to love every minute of them.

Conservative reaction to Trump has been mixed in Iowa and elsewhere, with many observers not really knowing what to think of his potential voters, many of whom say they’ve never been involved with politics before.

Will they vote? Byron York of the Washington Examiner interviewed a number of them and says don’t count on them to stay home. “A lot of commentators have described Iowans like them as so loosely connected to politics that they are unlikely to trouble themselves to leave home on what is sure to be a cold night to spend an hour at a caucus. There's certainly been a lot of wishful commentary to that effect.

“Maybe they won't show up there. On the other hand, when the Trump rally began, the temperature in Clear Lake was zero degrees and falling — pretty cold even for the area. People waited outside in line for quite a while to see Trump — everyone had to go through the Secret Service security checkpoint. By the time the event was over, it was dark outside, windy and -2 degrees, headed still lower.”

Attendance at rallies alone doesn’t guarantee anything, but it does show a measure of enthusiasm. Like with Cruz, Trump’s people are energized and motivated. The fact Trump isn’t a conventional politician is perhaps the largest part of his appeal.

There’s nothing to indicate they won’t show, except for past history. But this year has defied conventional wisdom thus far in just about every way. Cruz apparently has the advantage when it comes to organization. If that’s the case, it might be enough to enough to get him the win.

Look for it to be a tight contest in Iowa on February 1.

Rubio making late pitch to evangelicals, likely to no avail

Lagging behind Trump and Cruz is Marco Rubio, a candidate who’s increasingly seen as the establishment’s last hope to stop the two “outsider” frontrunners.

It’s conceivable Rubio could compete in many states, but not likely in Iowa. One of the reasons is the Florida senator’s perceived lack of effort to court evangelical voters, the key conservative constituency in the state. Marco is counting on his overall appeal to carry the day, but it’s not working very well in practice.

His recent attempts to reach evangelical voters are probably too little, too late.

Eliana Johnson of National Review reports, “There are signs that the Rubio campaign is making a last-minute attempt to pay the party’s faith-based voters special attention. Last week, Rubio announced the formation of a religious-liberty advisory commission that includes prominent pastors and theologians who have the senator’s ear, but are not endorsing him. His campaign also went up with a television ad in which he expressly discusses his Christian faith.

“Still, these sorts of overtures have the feel of a desperate effort to make up for months of comparative inactivity. They’re the kind of moves the Cruz team has been making since the beginning, with such success that there may not be enough real estate or time left for anyone else to eat into its commanding lead among Evangelicals.”

Part of Rubio’s problem in Iowa and elsewhere is he doesn’t seem to have a coherent strategy to nail down any of the Republican Party’s core constituencies. Whereas Cruz is trying to reach libertarians, national security minded voters, evangelicals and Tea Partiers, Rubio seems only interested in the establishment business class and neoconservatives.

Trump’s support is more broad based ideologically, but is driven by the most hard core of anti-Washington partisans. These are the angriest voters who just want to burn the place down and think Trump will do it.

Along with no base, there are also widespread reports that Marco doesn’t work very hard on his campaign either. That’s a hard reputation to overcome, especially when your opponents are all too happy to point out that your senate voting record is full of absences.

All the signs lead to a fairly mediocre showing for Rubio on Caucus Night.

Summing it up

In this very unusual Republican primary election, the contest looks to be a fight to the end between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. In a stark departure from past years, there doesn’t appear to be a significant establishment contender in the state.

Ted Cruz’s up close and personal campaign style and superior on-the-ground organization may give him an advantage, though Donald Trump’s fervent supporters are guaranteeing they’ll show up without any prodding.

February 1 will be one interesting evening, that’s for certain.


The Des Moines Register offers a handy candidate tracker tool which shows where the candidates will appear on any given day. Click here to access it.

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