Ted Cruz, under fire, begins to stumble in a very bad week

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks, during a campaign stop at the Freedom Country Store on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Freedom, N.H.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks, during a campaign stop at the Freedom Country Store on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Freedom, N.H. AP

A week ago Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was riding pretty high in his presidential game plan.

He was leading billionaire Donald Trump in the early-voting state of Iowa and was a close second in national polls. He and Trump were both pulling away from the crowded Republican field in what was suddenly a two-man race for the party’s nomination.

Then came a series of unfortunate events:

Mild-mannered Iowa GOP Gov. Terry Branstad said Cruz had to be defeated for opposing government support of ethanol.

Cruz’s tea party idol, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, endorsed Trump. For good measure, her daughter Bristol blasted Cruz.

In Washington, what is rapidly becoming the Republican Senate “hate Cruz club” unloaded: Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., said Cruz would be “cataclysmic” for the party, and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr was quoted by The Associated Press as having said in a private event that he’d vote for Bernie Sanders, an independent running for the Democratic nomination, over Cruz.

Cruz had to cancel New Hampshire campaign events for the first-in-the-nation primary to return to Washington on Wednesday in order to vote on a bill limiting Syrian and Iraqi refugees – which failed to get the threshold 60 votes.

And in what may be one of the key signs slowing Cruz’s momentum, one-third of voters in a Monmouth University national poll question the Canadian-born candidate’s constitutional eligibility to be president.

A CNN/ORC poll of Iowa voters, released Thursday, has Trump with 37 percent to Cruz’s second-place 26 percent.

“He’s stumbling,” Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said of Cruz. “His strategic problem is that he peaked too early in Iowa, which gave Trump and Branstad time to roll out the big cannons. It is also harmful to Cruz that the GOP establishment seems to have concluded that if they have to lose, they would rather lose with Trump than Cruz.”

Trump is jumping on Cruz, and he released a hard-hitting TV ad Friday attacking the Texan on immigration and his 2013 amendment to a comprehensive immigration bill that would have allowed millions of immigrants already in the U.S. illegally to stay, though not to become citizens.

“Ted Cruz is a total hypocrite and, until recently, a Canadian citizen who may not even have a legal right to run for president,” says Trump in the ad. “Had I not brought up the subject of illegal immigration, an issue which Ted Cruz is very weak on, nobody would even be talking about it.”

Cruz has fired back, saying that Branstad and others are part of the “Washington cartel” that don’t want change. Cruz wants a phase-out of a federal mandate to use corn-based ethanol in gasoline, arguing that government should not be picking winners and losers. He denies that he ever supported a way to let immigrants here illegally stay on and is now, like Trump, calling for a wall on the southern border.

Cruz also scored the support of conservative radio talk-show host Glenn Beck, who is due to campaign with him in Iowa. And Friday the Texan released a TV ad in New Hampshire criticizing Trump’s willingness to use eminent domain to build projects. The government’s ability to take private property is sensitive in many quarters, especially in the fiercely independent Granite State.

Trump tweeted that eminent domain was needed to build public projects.

“It wasn’t the best week for Cruz, but I think he was able to turn the Branstad anti-endorsement at least partially to his advantage by presenting it as evidence that Ted Cruz is the candidate the establishment fears,” said Mark P. Jones, political science professor at Rice University.

Despite the momentum being in Trump’s favor, Jones said, “While Cruz may be second in the polls in Iowa, he is right on Trump’s heels.”

And, others say, Cruz could lose Iowa and not be too hurt.

“Cruz is far from having Iowa, let alone the nomination, in the bag,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, University of Texas at Austin.

“But I think the conventional wisdom that he must finish first in Iowa is overblown,” Henson said. “It’s very hard to imagine him finishing in the top two in Iowa and in the top three in the other three early contests, and not continuing on to Texas and Super Tuesday.”