Bud Kennedy

To overtake Carson, Cruz can’t be just Trump Lite

In a year for outsiders, is Ted Cruz suddenly too close to Washington?
In a year for outsiders, is Ted Cruz suddenly too close to Washington? AP

Ted Cruz has more problems besides rural America’s sudden love for all things Trump.

At a time when he was supposed to be the firebrand evangelical preacher challenging Jeb Bush, instead he’s losing converts to the soft lessons of kindly surgeon Ben Carson.

Days away from a Sept. 3 visit to Texas and the Fort Worth Stockyards, Cruz remains stuck at 5 to 8 percent in polls. He was a sixth-place also-ran Tuesday in a South Carolina poll, with only 9 percent of Tea Party voters.

Government professor Darrell Castillo, a former Reagan White House staffer, compared Cruz’s campaign to shoppers’ taste for ice cream, an apt metaphor in a summer of searches for a Blue Bell substitute.

“People will always gravitate to a new flavor, one they haven’t tried,” said Castillo, now teaching at Weatherford College.

“Carson is automatically more interesting. He’s the candidate they don’t know. … Cruz is trying to win the extreme right-wing Christian conservatives. But this isn’t 1980, and the Cruz campaign thinks it is.”

Cruz’s gentle handling of blustery New York magnate Donald Trump left the impression that the two were almost working together against the establishment, but that made Cruz look like Trump Lite.

Matthew Wilson, an SMU political science professor, follows evangelical and Tea Party voters closely.

“Trump is wrong when he says nobody was talking about illegal immigration before him,” Wilson said. “Cruz was.

“Cruz’s problem is that everything he hoped to be in this race, Donald Trump has become and then some. … Carson is more of an outsider than Cruz and has a very appealing personality and story. Cruz has to hope at some point this whole phenomenon fades and people turn to more serious candidates.”

Lately, Cruz is switching to an all-out campaign against abortion and public funding of Planned Parenthood. He invited 100,000 ministers to a conference call Tuesday through California evangelical leader David Lane’s American Renewal Project.

But even if he gains on Carson, he also bumps up against fellow Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee.

“The hard-core Christian vote is diluted this cycle, and I don’t see people getting behind any one candidate,” Castillo said.

“There are no Ronald Reagans out there.”

Just a reality TV star.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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