Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks an aide ahead of a live television interview at Prime Time Restaurant in Guthrie Center, Iowa Jan. 4, 2016.
Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

Ted Cruz is leading in Iowa. Can it last through February?

Updated

SPENCER, Iowa – With victory in Iowa’s Feb. 1 caucus within reach, Sen. Ted Cruz is sharpening his focus on the state this week. He spent Wednesday aggressively courting social conservatives, tying up loose ends on a controversial energy position and swatting away a predictable offensive from Donald Trump over the senator’s eligibility for the presidency. 

“All across Iowa, and all across this country, people are waking up,” Cruz told a packed Godfather’s Pizza in Spirit Lake, one of 28 scheduled events on a six-day tour of the state. “There is an awakening, and there is a spirit of revival that is sweeping this country!”

“Awakening” and “revival” weren’t accidental remarks. Cruz is counting on right-leaning evangelicals to propel his Iowa campaign, and he frequently peppered his remarks with religious references and Bible quotes. He asked his supporters to pray for him in the face of “attack ads, lies and smears” from his opponents.

RELATED: Is Ted Cruz a natural born citizen? Ask the founders

Religious conservatives turned out for Mike Huckabee, who won the state in 2008, and Rick Santorum, who won it in 2012.

In both of those cases, the candidates fizzled out against a more moderate Republican candidate with strength in New Hampshire, which votes next on Feb. 9. This time, however, the establishment lane is split between competitors like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and John Kasich, setting up a bigger opening for an Iowa winner to march to the nomination.

Cruz, on the other hand, has been consolidating conservative endorsements and, if polls are to be believed, voters as well.

“If conservatives unite, we win,” Cruz told reporters before a town hall in Spencer.

After previously flirting with candidates like Scott Walker, Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson, Iowa Republicans have clearly marked Cruz as their front-runner in the final stretch. Winning Iowa is critical to his path to the nomination, and Cruz, underscoring the state’s importance, named Iowa Rep. Steve King his national campaign co-chair on Wednesday in addition to bringing him on his statewide tour.

Cruz’s new status as the candidate to beat also makes him a magnet for additional scrutiny and harsher attacks, however, which seem destined to pile up as voting nears.

On Wednesday, he spent the day finessing one rare issue where he’s broken with many top Republicans in the state: ethanol.

Iowa politicians from both parties have lobbied hard to protect the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which helps drive up demand for crops in the state that are used to produce ethanol. Cruz, however, is opposed to the standard and has called for an end to direct and indirect subsidies for ethanol. America’s Renewable Future, a pro-ethanol group led in Iowa by Gov. Terry Branstad’s son Eric Branstad, has been tailing Cruz throughout the week and running ads attacking Cruz’s stance.

Looking to defuse the attack, Cruz clarified in a Des Moines Register op-ed that he would phase out the RFS over a five-year period rather than immediately kill it. Cruz, who had previously co-sponsored legislation to eliminate the RFS immediately, said it was not a reversal because he had previously introduced legislation in 2014 calling for a five-year transition.

The topic came up in multiple town halls on Wednesday and a campaign aide told MSNBC it’s been a regular concern among voters.

“I’ve heard you might be not supporting [biofuels] and a lot of people in this part of the country depend on them for financial security,” one woman told Cruz at his Spirit Lake event.

Cruz told the crowd that “lobbyists and Democrats” were raising the issue and repeated his call for a five-year phase-out while emphasizing that he would end subsidies for industries like oil and gas as well.

“I don’t believe government should be picking winners and losers.”
Sen. Ted Cruz
“I don’t believe government should be picking winners and losers,” Cruz said.

That seemed good enough for the audience, which applauded twice during his answer.

At the same time Cruz navigated the subsidized weeds of Iowa’s corn industry, he also was confronted with new attention from Trump – his top rival in the state and still highly competitive in polls – over whether Cruz was eligible to become president.

Trump and Cruz maintained a friendly relationship throughout 2015, but it has rapidly broken down with the New Year as the two collide in the polls. Trump – who notoriously led a campaign falsely alleging President Obama was born in Kenya and thus ineligible to be president – has predictably turned to raising eligibility issue with Cruz now over his Canadian birthplace.  

“It’s a problem for him, and it’s a problem obviously for the Republicans because if the – let’s assume he got a nomination and the Democrats bring suit, the suit takes two to three years to solve, so how do you run?” Trump said Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Trump raised the issue again on Wednesday. In an interview with CNN, he urged Cruz to seek a “declaratory judgment” from a court clarifying his eligibility in order to remove a “cloud” from his candidacy.

Cruz, along with many mainstream legal scholars, has argued that it’s a non-issue and that his mother’s American citizenship made him eligible for the presidency. His campaign noted that Trump, in friendlier times last year, suggested Cruz was on sound legal footing when asked about the topic.

“People will continue to make political noise about it, but as a legal matter it is quite straightforward, and I would note that it has occurred many times in history,” Cruz told reporters Wednesday in Rapid Rocks, noting that previous candidates like John McCain and George Romney were born abroad.

Cruz has declined to hit back at Trump beyond tweeting a clip of a “Happy Days” episode in which the Fonz jumps over a shark on water-skis, a moment that’s become cultural shorthand for the start of an irreversible slide in quality.

The presidential campaign: Ted Cruz
The Texas senator was first to announce his bid back in March, and has since been carefully laying the groundwork for a come-from-behind primary victory.
On Wednesday he told reporters that any talk of Trump was a distraction and turned the topic to North Korea’s latest reported nuclear test, which he said showed “the sheer folly of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy.” He pledged to abandon the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, which he said would enable that country to obtain nuclear weapons as well.

Trump wasn’t the only candidate to raise questions about Cruz’s eligibility, however. Sen. Rand Paul, who is battling Cruz for libertarian votes, said on a radio show that he was unsure about his qualifications, according to BuzzFeed.

“You know, I think without question he is qualified and would make the cut to be prime minister of Canada, absolutely without question, he is qualified and he meets the qualifications,” Paul said.

Cruz has carefully avoided antagonizing Trump for months in large part because they’re fighting for a similar pool of supporters, which Cruz hopes to inherit from Trump if the real estate mogul fades. Talking to voters at his events, there were some encouraging signs for Cruz on that front.

Kristina Gigstad, a 37-year old attorney from Spirit Lake, told MSNBC after Cruz’s pizza place appearance that she was “looking at Trump” initially. But in recent days, she came across an old deposition in which Trump berated a female lawyer for taking a breastfeeding break. That was too much for Gigstad, who brought her 3-month old son to Wednesday’s event.

“He’s alienated just about every segment of society,” she said. “That’s not going to work for a world leader.”

Still, Cruz doesn’t want to take any chances when it comes to losing voters to Trump. At his final event on Wednesday in Storm Lake, he showcased his increasingly hard line on immigration, an area where’s moved significantly further right in recent months under pressure from Trump. 

During a town hall in a hotel lobby, an emotional woman asked Cruz about deportations and said she was allowed to stay in the country through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama administration program that grants temporary protection from removal to young people brought into the country illegally children. Cruz, who supports undoing the program and recently ruled out any path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, was unmoved. 

“If you’re a DACA recipient, it means that you were brought here illegally,” Cruz said. “Violating the law has consequences.”

Donald Trump, Iowa and Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz is leading in Iowa. Can it last through February?

Updated