Iowa Reckonings for Clinton, Cruz

Iowa Reckonings for Clinton, Cruz
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In just a handful of days, Iowa caucus-goers will set a course for the presidential contest, and few candidates have more at stake there than Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton.

The two campaigns couldn't be more different in substance and vision. Yet, each candidate approached Iowa with a precision unmatched by rivals in either party. Each has drawn from traditional playbooks, mindful of the state's fondness for retail politics. But on Feb. 1, Clinton and Cruz may find themselves stampeded by avant-garde challengers who seemingly learned how to read voters’ minds.

The plotline is all too familiar for Clinton. Defeat at the hands of Bernie Sanders in the Hawkeye State would revive criticisms that the more seasoned and well-funded candidate failed to deliver. If she loses or even comes close to losing, the Democratic establishment will not just point fingers at Clinton’s Iowa organization, built for her with Barack Obama’s 2008 triumph in mind. It will blame her.

For Cruz, finishing behind Donald Trump in Iowa, even if the state has rarely foreshadowed the eventual GOP nominee, would undercut the thrust of the Texan’s presidential bid. And a Trump victory on caucus night would explode Republican Party doubts that conservative voters are ready to send a brash-talking billionaire from New York to the White House.

Cruz as Stop-Trump Alternative

The Texas senator pitched the stakes as he sees them to Iowans while barnstorming the state this week.

"There is a very good chance [Trump] could be unstoppable and be our nominee,” Cruz told a group of Iowa pastors during a private meeting on Monday, as reported by the Christian Broadcasting Network's The Brody File. "Even if you’re thinking about another candidate, the simple reality is there’s only one campaign that can beat Trump in this state, and if conservatives simply stand up and unite, that’s everything.”

The two rivals were set to take center stage in Des Moines Thursday night for the Fox News Republican presidential debate. But late Tuesday evening, Trump announced he would boycott the debate -- citing an ongoing feud with the network's host and moderator, Megyn Kelly.

As the GOP frontrunner, Trump might figure forgoing a debate just days before the Iowa caucus won't hurt him -- especially since he will likely gain attention for the boycott. His absence stands to elevate Cruz, who is a skilled debater and could use the mega platform to his advantage. But given his standing in Iowa, Cruz could become the punching bag of other rivals like Marco Rubio.

Cruz called Trump "scared" for threatening to bow out of the forum and challenged him to a one-on-one, "mano-a-mano" debate before the caucuses.

In Iowa, Trump has been tormenting Cruz with a series of hits and endorsements meant to undermine the senator among his core base of support -- evangelicals, who make up nearly 60 percent of the GOP electorate in Iowa.

On Tuesday, Trump announced the endorsement of Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the late prominent televangelist. Falwell called Trump "a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again." The timing of the endorsement is intended to rattle Cruz and poach voters inclined to him.

Evangelicals are essential to Cruz's campaign. A Quinnipiac University poll of Iowa released Tuesday found Trump edging Cruz, 31 percent to 29 percent. There are silver linings there for Cruz. First, he leads Trump by significant margins among evangelicals, Tea Party members, and those who described themselves as "very conservative." Trump leads Cruz among those who identify as moderates and those who describe themselves as somewhat conservative.

"Expectations change throughout the course of the campaign, but our goal since the beginning was to come out of Iowa as the candidate who is the clear choice for conservatives going forward," says Steve Deace, a conservative radio host in Iowa supporting Cruz.

Cruz supporters are heartened by signs of fluidity in the race: 39 percent in the poll say they might change their mind before attending the caucus. Additionally, Trump is leading Cruz among first-time caucus goers, who may not be familiar with the process, while Cruz leads among those who have caucused before.

"If Trump can crack the byzantine code that is the Iowa caucus," says former Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn, it speaks to his potential to scoop up wins in the remainder of early states with primaries.

The RealClearPolitics polling average finds Trump leading Cruz by 5.7 points in Iowa. The Hawkeye State is traditionally volatile -- and open to surprises. Six days before the caucus in 2012, for example, Ron Paul led the field and eventual winner Rick Santorum was in fifth place.

Cruz has spent time cultivating support of key evangelical leaders in the state and secured high-profile endorsements from Christian activists, including Bob Vander Plaats.

And Cruz is targeting Trump on his past support of abortion rights with ads airing in Iowa that include a clip of an old “Meet the Press” interview in which Trump describes himself as "pro-choice in every respect." A super PAC supporting Cruz uses the same clip and focuses on Trump's opposition then to banning partial-birth abortion. Another ad by the PAC portrays Trump as a bully who turned on Cruz: "Will voters be bullied into believing the bluster, or stick with a brilliant man who won’t betray them?” The spots are part of a $2.5 million ad buy in Iowa and South Carolina.

Trump insists his views on abortion have evolved. While he has tried to downplay his expectations in Iowa, pointing to the closeness of the race there, Trump is making an overt effort to touch Christian conservatives. He attended a Presbyterian church service in Muscatine, Iowa, over the weekend. He even stayed the night in the Hawkeye State -- his first overnight of the campaign -- at a Holiday Inn Express, no less.

Meanwhile, Cruz has covered Iowa county by county, courting voter after voter. On Tuesday, for example, Cruz held seven events in the state.

Trump has launched a variety of attacks designed to portray Cruz as a "nasty guy" who won't be able to govern and get things done. "People don't like him, at all," Trump told MSNBC on Tuesday. "I think actually Ted is more strident than Obama, if you want to know the truth. Nobody gets along with Ted. At least some people like Obama."

The oxygen-draining clash between the two top rivals would traditionally open the door for a third candidate to emerge. The catch is, there is an even muddier race for that third-place spot. Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush are each trying to break free from one another, and there is no clear winner of that bracket. Rubio is best positioned in Iowa to take third place, which would be considered a victory in that it could signal some sort of consolidation of the mainstream wing, and give him momentum heading into New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary.

This week, Rubio is campaigning around Iowa, promoting his conservative credentials. He was joined on the stump by popular Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, though she has not endorsed anyone in the race and isn't planning to.

The challenge, though, is that Rubio's immediate rivals are focused on New Hampshire more than Iowa. For example, Kasich will spend caucus night at a town hall in the Granite State, where he is currently polling in third place, according to the RCP average. A Cruz loss in Iowa could hurt his momentum heading into New Hampshire and wind up boosting the fortunes of a GOP mainstream, stop-Trump rival camped out there.

Democrats: Continuity vs. Change

When Clinton first began plotting her second presidential bid, Trump and Sanders weren’t on the horizon as viable White House contenders. Returning to Iowa last year, where memories of political loss loomed large, Clinton said she learned lessons from 2008 and would rely on a 2016 organization that could unlock the state’s mind-numbingly complex caucus math and help propel her to the nomination. She presented herself to Iowa voters as a down-to-earth, ultra-experienced problem-solver who could build on Obama’s progressive agenda and work across the aisle with Congress.

Clinton’s team imagined that an Iowa victory followed by a New Hampshire win would serve as two solid pavers along a path to a general election battle with a GOP nominee beginning this summer.

But Sanders and his liberal followers reveled in his underdog status. They bet that his college campus speeches about a Washington system “rigged” against the middle class by wealthy lobbyists and big donors, in need of revolution rather than evolution, would catch on. And they were right.

Iowa is now a dead heat between Vermont’s Democratic socialist and the Democratic Party’s frontrunner, the woman who still leads Sanders by double-digits in national polls. In New Hampshire, Sanders has been leading the former secretary of state since early December and stretched that lead to nearly 15 points Tuesday, according to the most recent RCP average.

For Clinton, Iowa is an emotional, media-saturated political proving ground. For Sanders, a close second-place finish would be a victory of sorts, with a potential New Hampshire triumph in the wind. Iowa’s caucus demographics remain a delegate challenge for the senator, according to an RCP analysis, as are the following round of Super Tuesday states, which are home to more African-American and Latino voters, and more moderate Democrats.

“These next few days could easily define this campaign,” Marlon Marshall, director of state and political engagement for the Clinton campaign, told supporters Tuesday. “It’s no secret the polls are tight.”

Clinton, who spent the early part of January forcefully contrasting her agenda with the positions staked out by GOP presidential rivals and particularly Trump, is now focused on her Vermont opponent. She tells voters she has the experience and battle scars to deliver practical policy solutions for Americans by navigating a government partially controlled by conservatives. And she says she’s ready to be commander in chief in a dangerous, complex world. Clinton has challenged Sanders on issues such as gun control, his Medicare-for-all plan, government-funded college tuition for all, higher taxes on the middle class, and foreign policy.

“I've taken on the status quo time and time again,” Clinton told a young Sanders supporter during a town hall candidate event in Iowa broadcast by CNN Monday night.

“I have had many, many millions of dollars spent against me. When I worked on health care back in 1993 and 1994 … I was trying to get us to universal health care coverage, working with my husband. Boy, the insurance companies, the drug companies, they spent millions. Not just against the issue, but against me. And I kept going.”

Sanders argues, as he did during his portion of the CNN broadcast, that he possesses the judgment and vision to inspire Americans to demand significant change, rather than rely on post-Obama incrementalism. He faults Clinton for her vote to authorize the Iraq war; her delay before finally opposing a Pacific Rim trade pact and proposed Keystone XL pipeline; differences over Wall Street regulation; her lucrative speaking fees after leaving the State Department; her reliance on Super PACs; and ties to corporations and lobbyists.

“Experience is important, but judgment is also important,” Sanders said at Drake University during the CNN event. “In other words, yes, I do think I have the background and the judgment to take this very, very difficult job of being president of the United States.”

President Obama, who has signaled his support for Clinton and described her as “wicked smart” during a Friday interview with Politico, is scheduled to meet one-on-one with Sanders Wednesday morning in the Oval Office. During his analysis of the Iowa contest and the Democrats’ nomination battle, Obama described Sanders as a “bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before” who could afford to focus a rallying cry around one issue -- income inequality.

While closing arguments this week by Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley include television ads, surrogate campaign supporters, and social media and email outreach, the know-how in Iowa that could still change the outcome is precinct strategy on caucus day.

Clinton’s campaign team has trained volunteers with mock caucuses, quizzes, problem-solving exercises and run-throughs. Sanders’ campaign has also educated its precinct captains and volunteers, but with an emphasis on helping younger voters and first-time caucus-goers who are expected to turn out for the senator and are unfamiliar with the rituals, according to a Des Moines Register primer on the intricacies of the mathematical allocation of delegates.

In Iowa on Monday, it’s one form of experience that could leave revolutionaries out in the cold.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.

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