Cruz's Iowa Gut Punch

Cruz's Iowa Gut Punch
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Ted Cruz suffered a one-two gut punch Tuesday in Iowa, a state considered friendly territory for the Texas senator.

First came the anti-endorsement from the state's popular and longest-serving governor, Republican Terry Branstad, who said, "It would be a big mistake" for Iowans to support Cruz. Branstad has pledged not to endorse a candidate before the Feb. 1 caucuses and tends to stay above the fray in his state, but he and his family have taken particular issue with Cruz for his call to end federal ethanol subsidies that are integral to the state's corn industry.

Then came the mother lode: an in-person endorsement of archrival Donald Trump from Ms. Rogue herself.

Sarah Palin flew from Alaska to Iowa State University in Ames on Tuesday to support the billionaire businessman at a rally and is slated to campaign for him in the state on Wednesday. In announcing the endorsement of the former vice presidential candidate, who has been a Tea Party darling and anti-establishment activist in the intervening years, Trump took a dig at Cruz.

In a statement, Trump quoted Ted Cruz praising Palin: "She knows how to pick winners."

Earlier in the day, as the Trump campaign teased the endorsement without naming Palin, Cruz set some expectations, tweeting: "I love @SarahPalinUSA. Without her support, I wouldn't be in the Senate. Regardless of what she does in 2016, I will always be a big fan."

Palin's endorsement is a blow to Cruz, not only because she has supported him in the past, and recently praised his candidacy, but also because she could help motivate and mobilize conservatives to turn out for the Iowa caucuses. Palin has built relationships with activists in the Hawkeye State and is well liked by evangelicals, a key constituency for Cruz.

Palin also has a proven track record when it comes to endorsements in Republican primaries -- especially in Iowa. She backed underdog Joni Ernst in a multi-candidate GOP primary for Iowa's open Senate seat in 2014. Ernst, now a U.S. senator, is considered a rising party star and was tapped to deliver the GOP response to the president's State of the Union address in 2015. But Palin has largely faded from the national stage since the midterms and hasn't been a presence on the 2016 trail until now. While Palin and Trump stole the show so far this week, time will tell whether she still has enough clout to move votes.

Cruz is well organized in the state, and polls show him edging Trump there ahead of the Feb. 1 caucuses. While Cruz is running one of the best campaigns from an operational standpoint, he has been through the wringer over the past several days.

Trump has proved a master of stealing Cruz's thunder. Just as his chief rival was barnstorming Iowa on a highly publicized bus tour -- one designed to show the senator's workman-style campaign that Iowans tend to favor -- Trump raised questions about his birth in Canada and eligibility to be president. Until then, Cruz had been reluctant to respond, let alone strike, at any of Trump's criticisms or controversial statements, hoping to one day absorb his support. But mid-January proved to be the tipping point. Cruz went after Trump's ability to serve as commander-in-chief, and questioned what he termed his "New York values."

When the two GOP contenders finally entered the long-awaited cage match during the GOP debate in Charleston, S.C., last Thursday, Cruz was in fighting mode, lashing back against Trump's birther charges and what he called Trump’s lack of conservative credentials. But Trump silenced Cruz on the "values" bit and managed to dominate headlines in the following days.

This week, Cruz is campaigning in New Hampshire, where he hopes to have a surprisingly strong showing in the Feb. 9 primary and then build momentum through the Southern states. During campaign stops, Cruz described Trump as "rattled."

The tension between the two continued while they campaigned in separate states. Trump held a rally at Liberty University in Virginia on Monday, the site of Cruz's presidential campaign launch in April. It was part of the GOP frontrunner's attempt to court Christian conservatives, though he stumbled when citing a Bible passage. On Tuesday, after receiving an endorsement from John Wayne's daughter at the Winterset Museum dedicated to the late actor, Trump questioned Cruz's “temperament."

After Trump pointed out "highly respected" Gov. Branstad's opposition to Cruz -- "People do not like Ted," Trump tweeted -- the senator said Trump was seeking establishment support. "Cartel wants more deals & cronyism; fears conservatives," Cruz tweeted in response.

Brandstad's opposition to Cruz wasn't all that surprising: His son Eric heads a pro-ethanol group that has been trailing candidates across the state and has warned against the conservative senator's stance. The six-term governor's network is aligned with other candidates such as Chris Christie and Jeb Bush.

Cruz has courted evangelical leaders and conservative activists in the state instead of establishment-oriented figures. Iowa Rep. Steve King, known for his controversial anti-immigration stances in the House, endorsed Cruz and has campaigned throughout the state for him.

While Cruz can spin the Branstad blow into a reinforcement of his message, the Palin snub could burn a little.

In an interview with CNN conducted before the endorsement was announced, Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler said Palin endorsing Trump would be "a blow to Sarah Palin" because she "has been a champion for the conservative cause, and if she was going to endorse Donald Trump, sadly, she would be endorsing someone who's held progressive views all their life." But, Tyler added, "I'd be deeply disappointed."

In campaign stops on Tuesday, Cruz didn't engage when asked about Palin, noting only that he was thankful for her friendship and support of his career.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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