Ted Cruz has worked for months to build a campaign that is worthy of envy. The junior Senator from Texas toiled away in rural Iowa restaurants, South Carolina churches, even an active bee farm in New Hampshire where guests were warned they might, in fact, be killed if they wandered off. Cruz lined up county chairmen in each of the first four early nominating states, something that even eventual winners of party nominations never achieve. His super PACs—yes, plural—are sitting on at least $30 million. To this point, Cruz has not incurred a single meaningful gaffe. And new polls show he’s leading in Iowa.
All of which is to say his Republican rivals are gunning for him, including his one-time best-frenemy Donald Trump.
Cruz is heading to Tuesday night’s debate on the Las Vegas Strip with all eyes on him and how he can defend his newly minted—and perhaps fragile—frontrunner status. Can he withstand the incoming criticism with his trademark smirk and dismissive wave? Will he sidestep any line of attack, regardless of its validity? Will he again turn against the journalists asking him questions, a surefire crowd pleaser in the Republican field? Or will one of his rivals finally force him to trip on his cowboy boots and let them land the rare blow against a collegiate debating champion?
It’s fight night in American politics on CNN, and the odds-makers are betting on only one thing: the fifth and final GOP debate of 2015 is one to watch. If the eight rivals sharing the stage—and the four others who will be part of a warm-up forum—can’t stomp on his momentum, Cruz is likely to head into the new year with serious and perhaps lasting advantages.
For months, the crowded field of Republicans has seen the top tier shift, as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson captured voters imagination only to fade and former tech CEO Carly Fiorina fought her way into debates only to see voters tire of her. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush began his campaign as the one to beat and armed with platinum-plated donors, yet his campaign has essentially to shrunk to one state: make-or-break New Hampshire. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky started with the advantage of his father’s previous campaigns, yet those voters have moved on as the surly libertarian has shown little enjoyment in running for the White House.
It’s the same for supporter of the previous two winners of Iowa’s caucuses, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Each is relegated to the also-ran debate, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former New York Gov. George Pataki. Each is struggling to catch a break despite the occasionally quotable quip in the undercard match.
Only Trump, the brash billionaire no one took seriously at the start, has proved he has staying power atop the polling heap. Yet there are signs he is starting to fade in Iowa, even as his national numbers remain strong if not growing. Perhaps sensing the shift, Trump has ended his detente with Cruz, leaning into him this weekend: “I don’t think he’s qualified to be President.… I don’t think he’s got the right judgment.”
None of the other campaigns dispute that Cruz has the biggest target painted on his podium. Cruz is now the leader in Iowa, the state that on Feb. 1 starts the nominating calendar. He stands to do incredibly well when the campaign shifts to the South a month later; Cruz is beelining there after the debate to bounce around states that will participate in the so-called SEC Primary. That, coupled with a genuine disdain among Cruz’s rivals for the first-term Senator who has never shown any interest in niceties, is making him the main event on Tuesday.
The scene will be the the glitzy Venetian casino, where guests ride gondolas through high-end shopping and celebrity chefs lend their names to bistros. The sprawling complex is, of course, owned by Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who has yet to pledge his chips to any candidate. Cruz is among those trying to win over the Adelson clan, but so far none has scored a knockout hand. The Adelsons, the top donors to Republicans in 2012, might sit this game out a bit longer to see who folds.
Cruz’s rivals are ready to unleash their pent-up frustration with him. His glib answers have irked Ohio Gov. John Kasich. A rivalry with a fellow Cuban-American lawmaker, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, has festered for years; Rubio’s team needs a moment to help him catch up to Cruz. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a tough-talking prosecutor but has yet to rattle Cruz and his almost unrivaled confidence—some say cockiness—on the debate stage. And these forums seldom give Bush much to crow about.
Yet aides to each are promising a tough line against Cruz. Without doing some damage to Cruz and his veneer of frontrunner, the contenders are trading in political hardball for snowball fights with the kids as the year winds down. It will be tough come January to rest the race, especially if the last images of 2015 are also-rans flailing to land a blow. It might be more weak eggnog than strong political punch from these contenders unless they arrive Tuesday ready to force confrontations. Even then, there’s no guarantee Cruz won’t have the advantage. And if that fails, the political machine Cruz has built during the past year might be enough to keep him moving forward. After all, he’s been a scrappy fighter, and Republicans reward that quality at this point in the process.