Trump’s trump card in Iowa?

Trump’s trump card in Iowa?
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE is an unabashed backer of federal support for ethanol, a popular issue in Iowa that could provide the GOP front-runner with an effective closing argument against Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Finance: GOP criticism of tax bill grows, but few no votes | Highlights from day two of markup | House votes to overturn joint-employer rule | Senate panel approves North Korean banking sanctions GOP criticism of tax bill grows, but few ready to vote against it Anti-gay marriage county clerk Kim Davis to seek reelection in Kentucky MORE (R-Texas) ahead of the Feb. 1 caucuses.

Cruz has a narrow lead in polls of Iowa votes, but the race is close, and Trump has vowed to win the Hawkeye State.

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“Iowa is important to me,” he said in an exclusive interview last week with The Hill.

“It would be a less risky answer not to say that. I could tell you that, ‘Well, I hope I do well in Iowa’ and that would cover all the bases. I don’t want to say that. I’d love to win Iowa. To me, Iowa is very important.”

Ethanol could be the difference maker.

Cruz opposes the federal ethanol mandate, which requires refiners to mix a certain amount of ethanol into their gasoline supply.

Iowa is the leading ethanol-producing state in the nation, and Cruz's plan to phase out the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) has raised angst there, even among his own supporters. 

Trump has peppered his Iowa stump speeches with praise for the fuel and hit Cruz for opposing the ethanol mandate.

The Trump campaign considers the issue one that could sway people struggling to decide between two like-minded candidates courting a similar demographic of voter.  

“I don’t think we should ever lose track of the fact that national security and the economy and immigration and a lot of these issues are very important, but I would say ethanol plays a tie-breaker role,” Sam Clovis, Trump’s national co-chair and senior policy adviser, said. 

“If you come down to two candidates you like … it’s the idea of who has the most complete portfolio to address the issues of the state.”

Cruz has a checkered history on the RFS. In 2013 he co-sponsored a bill calling for the immediate end of the mandate, and last year he backed a bill calling for a five-year phase-out of the standard. 

He repeated that position in Iowa this week, penning a Des Moines Register op-ed that said he would look to wind down the mandate by 2022 if elected president. 

“I do believe there should be a gradual phase-out because there has been investment-based expectations,” Cruz told an audience in Cherokee, Iowa, on Tuesday night. 

“The lobbyists are trying the best they can to snooker the people of Iowa and convince the people of Iowa that a government mandate is the only way for ethanol to survive. The problem is, the government is blocking ethanol. They are trying to convince you the mandate is the best way to go.”

In corn-rich Iowa, Cruz’s ethanol platform chafes even his own supporters.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a Cruz endorser, said this week that he would work against an RFS phase-out plan should Cruz win the election. 

“It would be tough to repeal the RFS with people like me in Congress, and [Sens.] Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst,” King told the Wall Street Journal.

Iowa’s conservative evangelical voters have flocked to Cruz, giving him an edge on Trump. He passed Trump in polls to claim a small lead in the state in early December, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls.

Around that time, Trump turned to ethanol as an attack line on Cruz.

“With the ethanol, really, he's got to come a long way, because right now he's for the oil,” Trump said at a Des Moines rally in December. "But I understand it. Oil pays him a lot of money. He's got to be for oil, right?”

Clovis, the Trump senior adviser, said Trump doesn’t plan to highlight ethanol any more or less than he already has, but ethanol backers expect to hear more about the issue from Trump.

Derek Eadon, a senior adviser for America’s Renewable Future (ARF), is encouraging its 50,000-strong mailing list to vote for a candidate with a pro-ethanol rating.

While it won’t endorse a candidate, it gives Trump a “good” rating and Cruz a “bad” grade.

ARF leadership this week said they were happy to see Cruz endorse at least an extension of the RFS, but said any phase-out of the fuel would be a “bad position.”

“We don’t plan on moving Ted Cruz from the bad category to the good category any time soon,” Eadon said. “The most effective thing we’re going to have is this list of folks that we’re mailing, talking to on the phone. In the Iowa caucuses, that’s the key as these folks make up their minds.”

Clovis said the issue will be a topic in Trump's stem-winding stump speeches, and it will be a point of contrast between himself and Cruz. But the campaign expects groups such as ARF and others will be most effective at driving home the differences with voters. 

“I think the difficulty for Cruz is the perception — as much of fact — that being from Texas, he is going to have a tremendous amount of influence or pressure put on him by the oil lobby because the oil companies hate ethanol and they don’t want anything to do with it,” he said. “That’s the rub here in Iowa.”