Cruz on the rise before debate

Greg Nash

Ted CruzTed CruzThe Trail 2016: Fight night Google backs Obama's internet transition plan Steve King asks: Will Clinton be ‘on her meds or off her meds’ for debate? MORE’s plan to win the Republican presidential nomination is coming together.

The Texas senator has been edging up in the polls and has a chance to drive home his advantage Tuesday night, when the fourth televised GOP debate takes place in Milwaukee.

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GOP insiders say that the Tea Party ­favorite also has one of the most impressive political operations in the field. And the consensus is growing that he and Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioGlenn Beck: I was wrong about Ted Cruz Senate rivals gear up for debates Rubio: End of Obama's term could be 'most damaging yet' MORE (R-Fla.) could end up as finalists in the battle for the nomination.

In that scenario — which is dependent on the current leaders, businessman Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDebate of century lives up to its billing Trump offers support for banning gun sales to terror suspects Giuliani: I wouldn't debate again after Holt's 'interference' MORE and retried neurosurgeon Ben Carson,  fading — Cruz would emerge as the standard-bearer of the GOP’s conservative wing, while Rubio would be the establishment-friendly figure.

If it comes to that, Cruz supporters like their chances, given the insurgent mood rippling through the party’s base.

All of this might seem like an optimistic interpretation of the chances of a candidate who is in fourth place nationwide, according to the ­RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average. But even non-aligned Republican strategists say that the Texan is right where he wants to be.

“They like where they are. They like the trend line they are on,” strategist Matt Mackowiak, who also writes for The Hill’s Contributors blog, said of Cruz’s campaign.

Cruz had a particularly good night at the most recent Republican debate in Boulder, Colo., and he has risen steadily in the polls of late. Only a month ago, he was sixth in the RCP national average. 

The fact that he has subsequently overtaken former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is especially important. Cruz — along with Rubio, Carson and Trump — now looks to have achieved separation from the rest of the 15-person field.

The bullishness about his prospects stems from the fact that many people believe he is better-positioned than anyone to take votes from his 2016 rivals. They argue he could attract the support of trailing, right-wing candidates who may drop out — such as former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — while also picking off Trump and Carson backers who get cold feet about their lack of political experience.

“He has support among evangelicals [and] if something happens to Carson and Trump, I see him picking up that support,” said veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins. “He is a very viable candidate to win Iowa.”

Cruz now sits in an effective tie for third place with Rubio in Iowa. The Floridian has 12.8 percent support there, according to the RCP average in the state, with Cruz at 12.3 percent. The Texan is a more difficult fit for New Hampshire, where the GOP electorate leans less emphatically conservative. But he would be a much better bet in third-to-vote South Carolina and beyond.

Cruz has long insisted that he has the clear and concrete strategy to win. In August, he told a crowd in Little Rock, Ark., that he was focusing on that state and others in the South, including Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, all of which are scheduled to vote on March 1 in what has been nicknamed “the SEC primary.” 

“The role of Arkansas and the other states throughout the SEC is to make sure the next Republican nominee for president is a real and genuine conservative,” Cruz said, according to an Associated Press report, which also quoted him asserting that “our strategy is very deliberately playing the long game.”

Earlier still, in mid-July, Cruz had given a rundown to about two dozen House conservatives on his game plan. 

“It was a very enlightening discussion about his path to victory,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) told The Hill afterward, adding, “It was compelling. He knew his numbers so well.”

Cruz has performed extremely strongly in the fundraising race. According to the latest figures from the Center for Responsive Politics, he has around $13 million in cash on hand for his own campaign, a sizable sum that is dwarfed by the $37 million that Cruz-allied super-PACs have on hand.

Yet there are dangers, to be sure. Mackowiak, who admiringly says of Cruz that “if you look at all the metrics, he has outperformed from the very beginning,” also notes how the Texan senator has taken a much gentler approach toward Trump than have some of his rivals.

“That’s a great strategy so long as Trump fades,” he said. “But it’s a terrible strategy if Trump is in first place and on a path to the nomination.”

Others worry that Cruz still has a likability problem or that his trenchantly conservative views might cause him trouble in a general election. 

Some contend that Cruz would struggle to win over independent voters in the general election. However, a recent Quinnipiac University poll had Cruz beating Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDebate of century lives up to its billing Trump offers support for banning gun sales to terror suspects Five takeaways from wild debate MORE 46 percent to 43 percent in a hypothetical match-up.

Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor, said that when it comes to her own state and other diverse general election battlegrounds, “you just can’t come in and say some of the things Cruz says, on immigration particularly.”

In the primary, however, those views may be an asset rather than a liability. Indeed, it is Rubio for whom immigration could prove an Achilles’ heel. Cruz has recently described the Florida senator as a “moderate,” faint praise that could presage sharper, later attacks.

Rollins, referring to Tuesday night’s clash, said Cruz should avoid frontal attacks on Rubio.

“I would not debate Rubio if I were Cruz,” he said. “I would just make my own points. They are the two most articulate, effective people, and that’s enough at this point in time.”

He added that Cruz is on an upward trajectory. For now, that may be all that matters.

“The critical thing now is who’s going forward and who’s going backward,” Rollins said. “At this point, the guys moving forward are Cruz and Rubio.”