WASHINGTON – The Iowa caucuses are just five weeks away, and Ted Cruz knows a first-place finish — an entirely possible outcome according to the latest polls — could give him momentum against top rivals Donald Trump and Marco Rubio in the states that follow.
But if you're looking for Cruz this week, you won't find him in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids or Davenport. Instead, he's be barnstorming the South in what his campaign has dubbed the "Take-Off With Ted Cruz Country Christmas Tour" in a bid to secure a swath of the country that may be key to his post-Iowa prospects.
Cruz and his advisers determined the smart play is to invest a chunk of time and emotion now in the Southern states that are among the 12 that vote on March 1, the day known as Super Tuesday. It's also nicknamed the SEC Primary, a reference to the southeastern collegiate sports conference; the front-loading of Southern states on the calendar is designed to give conservatives a stronger voice in selecting the party nominee. And this year, states that vote before March 15 in the Republican contests award their delegates proportionately, rather than winner-take-all, thereby raising the incentive for everyone to compete.
"It starts off as it always does with the same four states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada," Cruz told a crowd on Sunday in Trussville, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, that drew more than 1,500 people. "But then, 10 days after, South Carolina: Boom! It's Super Tuesday."
Alabama and Texas agree on just about everything, except football, Cruz laughed. "And I'll tell you, the role that Alabama is going to play is ensuring that the next Republican nominee for president … is going to be a strong conservative."
Since late last week, Cruz has met voters in Virginia, Georgia and Alabama. He'll hit Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma before his tour ends on Wednesday. The seventh Southern state that votes on Super Tuesday is Cruz's home state.
Cruz's early focus on these states takes into account several dynamics of the race at this moment: His own strongest support comes from evangelicals and Tea Party self-identifiers in the South. Trump already has done lots of legwork across the region — with massive rallies in Macon, Ga.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Manassas and Richmond, Va. — and it would be risky to cede that. And while Rubio may lock down Florida, he hasn't invested as much. Cruz also can draw from the failures and successes of candidates in both parties in elections past, like Mike Huckabee's near singular attention on Iowa in 2008, or the way Rudy Giuliani staked too much down the road on Florida that same year, not to mention how Bill Clinton solidified his comeback in the Super Tuesday states in 1992.
"You have to have a plan to win early and then win a bit down the road," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, who says the March contests may be pivotal if results are divided through South Carolina. "You have a slew of primaries on the 1st. And we're going to start to look at which candidates are building up a delegate lead. Somebody's going to have a lead and we're going to start paying attention to that."
Other Southern states follow soon after, with Kentucky and Louisiana voting March 5, Mississippi on March 8, and Florida and North Carolina on March 15.
Cruz's rhetoric suggests he may be preparing for a longer-term challenge from Rubio, and he's positioning himself somewhere in between the two rivals — someone who's served in Washington, unlike Trump, but with an outsider's willingness to take on the establishment including Rubio.
Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, Cruz's state campaign chairman, said that while the polls suggest Trump will win his state, "I think Ted will come in a respectable second."