As much as Sen. Ted Cruz says he despises the GOP establishment, for now he and they have a common goal: to stop Donald Trump, and to try to do it in Iowa, where a Trump victory could clear the way for the billionaire businessman to run the table.
Mr. Cruz is counting on a strong showing in Iowa’s Feb. 1 caucuses to keep his campaign viable, having raised expectations that his brand of conservatism and his outreach to Christians are a natural fit for the heavily evangelical Iowa GOP electorate.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that Iowa is, if not make or break, close to that for Mr. Cruz, because if Sen. Cruz doesn’t win Iowa, it makes it even more difficult to imagine someone other than Mr. Trump winning New Hampshire,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, which released a survey this week showing Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz were locked in a neck-and-neck race ahead of Monday’s caucuses.
The two will not, however, go head-to-head Thursday night in the final pre-caucus debate, after Mr. Trump bowed out of the Fox News affair in a noisy dispute over the network’s coverage and scheduled a competing event to raise money for veterans.
That leaves Mr. Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida center stage in the prime-time debate, flanked by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who missed the cut for the last top-tier debate.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore have been invited to participate in the 7 p.m. undercard debate, along with the last two winners of the Iowa caucuses — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
In his closing pitch, Mr. Cruz warned pastors this week that the Iowa caucuses, the first stop on the nomination calendar, could be the last chance to stop Mr. Trump.
“If Donald wins Iowa, he right now has a substantial lead in New Hampshire, if he went on to win New Hampshire as well, there is a very good chance he could be unstoppable and be our nominee,” he said.
Analysts say Iowa will come down to whether Mr. Trump is able to get the thousands who’ve shown up at his rallies to turn out for the caucuses. Mr. Cruz, meanwhile, is counting on his well-organized ground operation to turn out his supporters.
“It is a known unknown,” Rick Tyler, a spokesperson for Mr. Cruz, said, alluding to Mr. Trump’s get-out-the-vote efforts. “We don’t know if they are going to show up. If they show up, it is an amazing accomplishment.”
Mr. Tyler said if Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump have even levels of support among Iowans, the advantage will go to the Cruz operation because his voters know the ropes better.
The Trump camp, meanwhile, maintains that their passionate supporters — who wait hours to attend rallies — will show up.
Mr. Cruz has begun a barrage of attacks questioning Mr. Trump’s commitment to conservative issues. The ads use 1999 footage of Mr. Trump on “Meet the Press” in which he says he has lived Manhattan his entire life — “so my views are a little bit different than if I lived in Iowa” — and proclaims, “I am pro-choice in every respect.”
Mr. Trump has said he has evolved on pro-life issues, like former President Reagan, a conservative icon.
Mr. Cruz, however, has seen major Republican Party figures say he’s too divisive and would be worse than Mr. Trump as president.
Some analysts saw those attacks as a way of trying to set up an establishment-friendly alternative to Mr. Cruz later in the primaries.
“I think many Republicans hope that Cruz fading would help Rubio,” said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It makes sense — ideologically they are not all that different.”
But Mr. Kondik said it’s not clear that voters who abandon Mr. Cruz would go to the major establishment figures such as Mr. Christie, Mr. Kasich and Mr. Bush.
A Quinnipiac Poll released this week found that 30 percent of Cruz supporters select Mr. Trump as their second pick, compared to 28 percent for Mr. Rubio and 14 percent for Mr. Carson.
Tom Jensen, head of Public Policy Polling, said Mr. Cruz’s supporters are “pretty evenly divided between Trump and Rubio when it comes to their next choice.”
“That’s a reflection of Cruz’s support coming from two different camps,” Mr. Jensen said. “Some of it is from hard-line conservative voters who if Cruz doesn’t succeed see Trump as the other viable hard-line conservative candidate in the race.”
Mr. Tyler dismissed the notion that Mr. Cruz is poised to falter and said he hopes primary voters recognize that Mr. Cruz is best positioned to defeat Mr. Trump.
He said polls show Mr. Bush and Mr. Rubio are stuck in the mud, and said Mr. Kasich and Mr. Christie are relying on a single-state strategy in New Hampshire that is not viable over the long haul.
“Is there a possibility that a third person could emerge? I doubt it,” he said.
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at email@example.com.
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