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Don't forget about Ted Cruz

With an impressive campaign operation, long game strategy, and dedicated network of donors, small and large, Cruz is still very much in this race.

You wouldn’t know it from his current sixth place standing in the polls or the many headlines that cast him as Donald Trump’s sidekick, but Ted Cruz is slowly creeping his way toward the nomination.

The Texas senator could very well be the sleeper, the ambush predator, and the fabled tortoise of this election -- in other words, the candidate who, despite his middling performance thus far, should in no way be dismissed. With an impressive campaign operation, long game strategy, and dedicated network of donors, small and large, Cruz is still very much in this race and, perhaps, the most underrated candidate in the GOP field.

The latest bit of evidence? Late Thursday, the Cruz campaign announced it had brought in more than $12 million during the last fundraising quarter, which ended on Sept. 30. The total was well below the more than $20 million raised by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose star has been rising since summer’s end. But it was also twice as much as the $6 million brought in by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the man considered by a growing cadre of political watchers to be the future nominee.

RELATED: Cruz: Trump supporters will eventually be mine

Cruz’s third quarter numbers came on top of an already monstrous fundraising haul for the Texas lawmaker, who ranked third overall in the presidential money race, according to the last FEC filing report, and raised more “hard money” than any other Republican candidate. Last week, the campaign also rolled out an American Revolution-themed crowdfunding platform called CruzCrowd, which should help him to capitalize even more on his small-donor network.

The money alone would be enough to make political analysts stand up and take notice.

“I think he’s undervalued stock right now,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak told msnbc. “He raised more hard money through the second quarter than anyone else, which is a stunning thing. And he’s got a low burn rate. He’s been very efficient.”

Even Democrats were impressed, as evidenced by former President Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer’s reaction to Cruz’s fundraising numbers on Twitter:

But Cruz is more than money. He also has a smart leave-no-delegate-behind strategy that extends well beyond Iowa, a proven ability to inherit supporters from dead campaigns, and a consistent, conservative message from which he rarely strays. While that steadfastness can sometimes make him come across as too scripted, it also keeps him from wandering into the same pitfalls that have confounded some of his rivals. It would be unlikely, for example, to hear Cruz argue that the term “anchor babies” was “more related to Asian people,” as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently goofed, because Cruz sticks like glue to his carefully crafted talking points on topics such as religious liberty, the Second Amendment, and Ronald Reagan.

“Whether you like Cruz or not, he’s clearly at that first-rate level,” Mackowiak said. “From an intellectual standpoint, to his ability to not make a lot of mistakes, to his work ethic, it all adds up to definitely being a first-tier political talent.”

One of the strongest elements of Cruz’s campaign is his ever-growing ground game. He’s naming new additions to his leadership teams almost daily, paying attention to even the most far-flung of places like the U.S. Virgin Islands, which sends delegates to both the Republican and Democratic national conventions without being able to participate in the general election. A bit closer to home, the Cruz campaign announced earlier this week that it had named chairmen in all 171 counties that make up the first four early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.

But Cruz is also looking ahead. Over the summer, he traveled through several southern states that comprise the so-called SEC primary -- a new regional voting blitz set to take place on March 1. Because RNC rules require states that vote before March 15 to award delegates on a proportional basis, rather than on a winner-take-all system, the SEC primary could be a major delegate boon for Cruz, giving him a good push into the winner-take-all contests.

The centerpiece of Cruz’s strategy, however, is fairly risky. Cruz has been upfront about his hope to inherit support from his rivals -- namely, Donald Trump -- once they fall from grace. To some extent, that gamble is starting to pay off. Cruz recently announced the addition of several Iowa, Georgia, and Nevada leaders and activists formerly allied with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who abruptly dropped out last month.

Yet Trump’s demise has become increasingly less certain, as have Cruz’s prospects of being everybody’s second choice. Likeability plays a major role in elections, and Cruz’s rating on that front pales in comparison to that of fellow “outsider” candidate, Ben Carson. According to Real Clear Politics averages, 27% of voters view Cruz favorably, while 45% feel the same about Carson.

But Cruz still has time to readjust his tactics so that they’re less focused on making nice with Trump and more about getting to know voters on a personal level. Signs of that shift are already in sight. In an interview set to air Sunday with WABC Radio's Rita Cosby, Cruz offered his harshest criticism to date of Trump, saying point-blank that he did not think the real estate mogul would be the Republican nominee. Starting next week, Cruz will also be spending significant time in Iowa -- where his father, Pastor Rafael Cruz, has been one of the most visible campaign surrogates -- to engage in some much-needed retail politicking.

“The time commitment is necessary in Iowa for him to be able to grow his share of the vote and rise in the polls,” said Craig Robinson, founder and editor-in-chief of “His father being here has been good, but it doesn’t make up for fact that people haven’t seen him yet.”

Cruz, of course, still has major challenges to overcome -- electability in a general election matchup, chief among them. Cruz is one of the most conservative candidates to ever run for president and, perhaps, the most disliked. That animosity was on full display during last week’s Senate vote on a stopgap measure to fund the government. In a fairly unusual rebuke, Cruz failed to get a “sufficient second” from fellow Republicans for a roll call vote on his amendment that would have suspended federal funding for Planned Parenthood and blocked implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. To add insult to injury, his Republican colleagues then loudly shouted “no” when Cruz instead tried for a voice vote.

“One of the biggest stresses to Cruz I do think is the party leadership,” said Mackowiak. “The establishment is like a scorpion raising its tail. I think the party would almost stop at nothing to prevent Cruz from being the nominee.”

Then there are the lackluster national poll numbers he’ll have to improve at some point if he wants to be considered a top-tier contender. Cruz’s Real Clear Politics average shows him stuck in the middle of the GOP pack, with a measly 6.2%. But his believers don’t seem too concerned about that.

“Polling has been largely wrong since 2010 and has been increasingly wrong after 2014,” wrote RedState editor Erick Erickson in a recent post. His conclusion: “[I]t looks like we are headed toward a Cruz vs. Rubio primary and, given how well the outsiders are doing currently, Cruz has a slight advantage.”