Correction appended, Jan. 20
The day began with a harsh swipe from the king of Iowa’s political establishment. It ended with a Tea Party queen crowning his top rival in the Hawkeye State.
Ted Cruz hasn’t suffered too many setbacks lately. But Tuesday was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day for a candidate hoping to ride a caucus win on Feb. 1 to the Republican presidential nomination.
First came the broadside from Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a popular six-term Republican whose neutrality in the primary apparently does not extend to his views on the Texas Senator. A Cruz victory in the caucuses would be “very damaging to our state,” Branstad declared, calling Cruz a “big oil” candidate and citing his opposition to a federal ethanol mandate the state’s farmers rely upon. “It would be a big mistake for Iowa to support him.”
A blistering appraisal from the mild-mannered Branstad was one thing; the governor’s eldest son is part of a pro-ethanol group that has taken to trailing Cruz around the state, passing out literature about the danger he poses to corn growers. The gut punch Cruz took from Sarah Palin was quite another.
The former Alaska governor, who endorsed Cruz in his 2012 Senate race, hit the hustings in Ames Tuesday night for Donald J. Trump. Just hours before Palin uncorked a vintage, deome-association endorsement of the bombastic businessman, a Cruz spokesman acknowledged the campaign would be surprised and “deeply disappointed” if the former vice-presidential nominee backed Cruz’s top rival.
Read More: Palin Endorses Trump for President
“This is a 1-2 punch,” Jamie Johnson, an unaffiliated Iowa Republican strategist who served as a senior adviser to Rick Perry’s presidential bid, says of Branstad’s dismissal and Palin’s endorsement. “This may affect 5% to 10% of caucus-goers, and that makes a difference.”
Suddenly the political headwinds are buffeting against Cruz, who until recently seemed to be coasting toward a victory in the first-in-the-nation caucuses by assembling a powerful faith coalition. Now locked in a tightening contest, even his edge with evangelicals now seems to be eroding. Just 24 hours ago, Trump was greeted by enthusiastic crowds at Virginia’s Liberty University, the site of Cruz’s own campaign kickoff, where school president Jerry Falwell Jr. blessed Trump’s campaign with glowing remarks.
“In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment,” Falwell said at the convocation, stepping on a series of endorsements from faith leaders the Cruz camp has been rolling out at carefully sequenced intervals.
Read More: How Ted Cruz Built His Christian Connection
In short, Cruz is starting to feel the flip side of his sudden front-runner status. Suddenly everyone is gunning for him. Over the weekend, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called Cruz’s jabs at Trump’s “New York values” an “asinine” insult. Outside a Cruz campaign stop Tuesday at a Sanbornville, N.H., pizza joint, Senator Marco Rubio’s backers handed out calculators, props designed to illustrate Cruz’s alleged practice of using the political math to guide policy.
Campaigning across New Hampshire, Cruz showed few signs of strain, feeding hunks of red meat to overflow crowds in small towns. But his mere presence in the state may be a miscalculation.
Since a six-day bus tour that wrapped up Jan. 9, Cruz has been absent from Iowa. Instead he has crisscrossed the Granite State and South Carolina, a bid to prove that he is a national candidate whose appeal extends beyond the heavily evangelical caucus-goers. In the meantime, his lead in Iowa has essentially evaporated, and some supporters are beginning to fear he may have peaked too early in a state that breaks late.
Even his day job is making life difficult.
Cruz was forced to cancel a pair of campaign events in New Hampshire on Wednesday to return to Washington, where Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell scheduled a procedural vote on Syrian refugees. Twice on Tuesday, former U.S. Sen. Bob Smith, a Cruz surrogate, told audiences that McConnell was scheming to tamper with Cruz’s momentum. “Mitch McConnell called a vote tomorrow to pull him off the campaign trail,” Smith said in Freedom, N.H. “This is what we’re fighting against.”
If true—and a McConnell spokesman disputes the claim—one might argue the revenge is richly deserved: it wasn’t long ago that Cruz took to the floor of the Senate to call McConnell a liar. His colleagues have refused to intervene in the burgeoning controversy surrounding Cruz’s citizenship status. “I just don’t think the Senate should get in the middle of this,” McConnell explained Sunday on ABC’s This Week. Yet that’s exactly what it did in 2008 for a better-liked colleague, passing a resolution that asserted then-GOP nominee John McCain — born on a Panamanian military base to American parents — was eligible for the office of President.
Cruz remains the favorite in Iowa and a real threat for the Republican nomination. But Tuesday’s bitter events reflect the new reality for a candidate who has spent his career using colleagues and campaign rivals for target practice. You can only do that for so long until the target comes to life and shoots back. Or as Palin put it Tuesday: “No more pussyfootin’ around.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quotation about Mitch McConnell holding a vote. It was from former U.S. Sen. Bob Smith.
— With reporting by Zeke J. Miller/Ames and Philip Elliott/Freedom, N.H.