The two Texas Republicans running for president are not doing nearly as well as they thought they would be by now.
Six months before the first-in-the nation Iowa caucuses, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign is faltering and his fundraising is so anemic that he had to stop paying staff last week. Polls in Iowa show his public support hovers just above 1 percent.
Sen. Ted Cruz is doing much better than Perry in the polls — the senator is now tied for fourth in Iowa at 8 percent — and his fundraising has been robust. His outreach to religious conservatives has drawn a strong response and has signaled the direction of his campaign.
But the unexpected appeal of billionaire developer Donald Trump has thwarted the efforts of everyone in the 17-candidate GOP primary field — and Cruz in particular — to tap into the vein of voter anger with political business-as-usual and the desire for a fresh face that the Trump campaign has uncovered.
During his short time as a senator, the Texas lawmaker has been a hero to the right, which has cheered his attempts to challenge party hierarchy and ruffle mainstream Republican feathers. Recently Cruz even called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar.
But both Texans are banking on Iowa to change their fortunes. Both are looking for a breakout moment ahead of their next shot at a national audience, Sept. 16 with the CNN/Reagan Presidential Library debate.
“Perry is fighting for his political life right now,” said Dennis Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines. “Anytime people hear you’re not paying your staff, they start preparing for the funeral.”
The former Texas governor has been to the Hawkeye State 12 times since announcing his candidacy in June, more than any other early-voting state. He was upbeat Wednesday in an appearance at the Iowa State Fair soapbox, where presidential candidates regularly speak, chiding reporters afterward for making an issue of his funding. His staff is working on a volunteer basis for now.
“We had the best week of fundraising last week since June,” he said. “I’m not going away.”
But Perry, like his competition, has found Trump’s insurgency a difficult hurdle. He was one of the earliest critics of Trump’s political style of insults and boasting. But the outlier’s status has improved, while Perry’s has not.
Cruz, meanwhile, has refrained from attacking the reality TV star, presumably in the hopes that should Trump eventually lose his current luster, his supporters will see Cruz as the heir apparent.
Cruz told Politico in a recent interview: “I would … note that an awful lot of Republicans, including other Republican candidates, have gone out of their way to smack Donald Trump with a stick. Now I think that’s just foolish.”
Cruz has been to Iowa nine times since June and is tied for fourth in an average of recent polls. He spoke at the soapbox Friday and was scheduled to hold a large “religious liberty” rally that night in Des Moines, featuring people opposed to the Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage. Among them will be an Iowa couple who would not rent their event space for a gay wedding because of their beliefs.
Expect the unexpected
Both Cruz and Perry can take some hope in that Iowa has been the site of unexpected outcomes. In 2012, former Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum mounted a late-breaking surge and claimed a 34-vote victory over eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
In a state where the media market is relatively cheap and success relies heavily upon one-to-one interactions with voters, outliers and second-tier hopefuls can be on an equal footing with the big names.
“One of the advantages of Iowa going first in the process is that you don’t have to have a lot of money to compete,” said Timothy Hagle, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa.
Perry’s strength is his affability and facility at glad-handing in retail politics, although he is still battling the memory of his poor showing in the 2012 primary campaign.
“Nothing beats shoe leather,” said David Yepsen, a former veteran Iowa political reporter, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “You’ve got to spend time in the state to do well.”
Surrounded by bales of hay at the state fair soapbox this week, Perry spoke about growing up on a Texas farm and his non-Washington resume by giving his harshest anti-Washington speech of the campaign. “You know what my answer to Washington, D.C., is? I’m mad as hell and I’m gonna do something about it to change it.”
He shrugged off a heckler who shouted about his being under indictment in Texas. “I’d wear that as a badge of honor,” Perry told reporters afterward.
One count of the two-count indictment – that he tried to influence a public official – was dismissed last month. But the former governor is still charged with abuse of power for vetoing funding of a public integrity unit.
He emphasizes his 14-year record as governor, boasting of creating 1.5 million jobs and his knowledge of the problems associated with the Mexican border. But unlike in 2012, he is not talking about his evangelical beliefs, focusing instead on economic issues.
It’s Cruz who has been the political evangelist, courting the pivotal religious conservative vote in Iowa; 57 percent of voters in the 2012 Republican caucuses described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, according to entrance polls.
“Cruz seems to be speaking to the social conservatives, but also some of the libertarian-leaning Republicans as well,” said Hagle.
At the State Fair on Friday, Cruz criticized former President Jimmy Carter’s administration during a stump speech, one day after Carter announced he was suffering from brain cancer.
Cruz said there were parallels between the Obama and Carter administrations.
“I think the parallels between this administration and the Carter administration are uncanny. Same failed domestic policy, same misery, stagnation and malaise. Same feckless and naive foreign policy,” Cruz said. “In fact, the exact same countries – Russia and Iran – openly laughing at and mocking the president of the United States.”
But what drew the most media attention for Cruz on Friday wasn’t his religious rally or other planned events and remarks — it was an unscheduled encounter with actress Ellen Page, a liberal activist.
According to an ABC News report, the Juno star came up to Cruz as he was grilling pork chops and queried him about discrimination against gay people in the workplace. Cruz responded that Christians were being persecuted for “living according to their faith.”
The exchange lasted for several minutes as Cruz spoke about standing up for “religious liberty” and Page stressed the need for tolerance.
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.