Cruz Cruises to Victory; Rubio Comes Within Hair of Trump

Cruz Cruises to Victory; Rubio Comes Within Hair of Trump
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DES MOINES, Iowa – Confident that 2016 will be a good year for conservatives, a dozen Republican presidential candidates made it to the starting gate, but 75 percent of Iowa’s caucus-goers split their support Monday night among three of them: Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio.

All three had reason to crow last night—especially Cruz—and all of them did so.

“Iowa has sent notice that the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States will not be chosen by the media,” an exultant Cruz told his supporters here. “Will not be chosen by the media; will not be chosen by the Washington establishment; will not be chosen by the lobbyists, but will be decided … by ‘We the people.’”

That allusion to the Washington establishment was no accident. Cruz, a freshman senator from Texas, is loathed by his colleagues on Capitol Hill, where he’s considered a showboater and an opportunist. He turned that dubious reputation to his advantage here, arguing that Washington’s antipathy is a badge of honor. Nearly 28 percent of Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers agreed, giving Cruz a 3.4 percentage-point margin over Trump.

For his part, the bombastic New York billionaire noted in his farewell speech here that political experts had predicted Iowa would be disastrous for him, and that he’d run ahead of expectations.

“Iowa, we love you!” Trump proclaimed in a speech uncharacteristic for both its brevity and graciousness. “We thank you. You’re special. I think I might come here and buy a farm.”

The stretch-running Rubio, who outperformed his pre-caucus poll numbers and nearly overtook Trump for second place, now becomes the so-called GOP establishment’s knight in shining armor—at least until next Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire.

“They told me I needed to wait my turn, that I needed to wait in line,” said the 44-year-old Rubio. “But tonight, here in Iowa, the people of this great state have sent a very clear message: After seven years of Barack Obama, we are not waiting any longer to take our country back.”

Like Cruz, Rubio is a Senate freshman. Initially, his primary competition was thought to be fellow Floridian Jeb Bush, who’d been something of a political mentor to him in Tallahassee when Bush was governor and Rubio was a rising star in the state legislature.

But Bush’s and Rubio’s campaigns were stalled by the unlikely phenomenon known as The Donald. On Monday night, however, Rubio finally emerged from the shadows, even if he did not quite catch Trump in the final vote tallies.

“I think Rubio’s the surprise of the night,” said Phil Patterson, caucus chairman at South Middle School in the Des Moines exurb of Waukee. There, officials estimated they had 50 percent to 75 percent more new registrants than in a normal year, a scenario replicated all over the state this year.

Initially, the higher-than-expected turnout was considered an advantage for Trump. But the turnout story turned out to be three-dimensional: Trump did apparently inspire a new cohort of voters to participate—Iowans who hadn’t previously taken part in Republican caucuses. Rubio’s charisma had a similar effect, while Cruz relied on a disciplined political organization and an unrelenting conservative message. In the end, Cruz induced 47,000 Iowans to vote for him, smashing the old record set in 2008 by Mike Huckabee.

In the end, the night belonged to Cruz, who didn’t want to let anybody forget it. His victory speech went on so long that the networks had to cut away to Hillary Clinton, who spoke for a while before it was Bernie Sanders’ turn. Still, Cruz was droning on.

“Ted won the caucus,” tweeted former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, “but lost the speech.”

Cruz and his team envisioned a national campaign from the start, but it necessarily depended on a strong showing in Iowa. His success here hinged on bringing together factions of the conservative wing that have fractured in recent presidential elections. “If conservatives unite,” Cruz liked to say, “we win.”

In the final days before the caucuses, however, Cruz’s support seemed to bend beneath the weight of sustained attacks. Trump needled him over his Canadian birth, suggesting he is ineligible to serve as president. Rubio’s campaign suggested that Cruz’s stances were the result of cold political calculation rather than staunch ideology.

In the end, Cruz had the last word, literally and figuratively. “When the sun rises tomorrow,” he told cheering supporters at his victory party, “this campaign will take the next step.”

Now it’s on to New Hampshire with three confident candidates: Cruz, Trump, and Rubio.

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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