Sen. Ted Cruz was in Iowa last weekend to hunt pheasant and activists. He found both.
He didn't fire into anyone's face (Dick Cheney), wear freshly pressed camouflage (John Kerry) or boast of shooting varmints (Mitt Romney). He had his own shotgun flown in by United Airlines as checked baggage and tramped through brush as if that's how he spent all his weekends. Cruz even managed a little "Duck Dynasty" humor ("Someone make a pillow," he shouted as a bird tumbled out the sky, or "just turn them straight into McNuggets").
Iowa is a shallow place, at least politically. Candidates put themselves through various rites of passage to prove they're sufficiently conservative for the state's Republican base. The one who fakes it best wins. The straw poll and caucuses sometimes make a presidential candidate. More often they are a killing field for ambition. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, with her air-conditioned tent, country music star Randy Travis and hot-fudge sundaes won the straw poll in 2011. That dried up money and enthusiasm for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had a better chance of becoming president than the eventual nominee. Thanks, Hawkeyes.
If Iowa could put together a candidate from spare parts, the result would be Cruz, a rabid conservative who loathes elites and cares so little about the Republican establishment that he dragged the party down to new lows with the government shutdown.
This was Cruz's third trip to the state in the past three months, making him the only noncandidate running harder than Hillary Clinton. The Texas senator has kissed the ring of Bob Vander Plaats, the evangelical kingmaker who wrote the Marriage Pledge in 2011 — which even thrice-married Newt Gingrich signed — met with county leaders and visited with Becky Beach, a Sarah Palin and tea party devotee.
Addressing a sold-out crowd of 600 at the Ronald Reagan Dinner on Oct. 25 in Des Moines, Cruz served up the red meat the base hungers for. He roamed the stage Oprah-like and, without giving away any cars, earned a standing ovation. He checked off traditional conservative principles of lower taxes, less spending and smaller government, and he questioned the commitment to those beliefs of everyone who isn't him.
He's the self-anointed real deal. About his filibuster and fight against the Affordable Care Act, he said, "Had we stood together, I'm convinced the outcome of this fight would be very, very different."
Cruz is that rare politician who can live without a friend, but not without an enemy. He wears with pride the badge "wacko bird," bestowed upon him by Sen. John McCain. He loves to say he didn't come to Washington to make 99 new friends. He may not have any pals in Washington, but he is a hero outside. Cruz is able to cling to his grievances as well as any unemployed tool-and-die man in the audience, even though he left any reason for resentment far behind by sailing through Princeton University, Harvard Law School and high office in Texas before landing in the Senate.
He reprised the same speech the next day in the town of Le Mars at a fundraiser for Rep. Steve King, his host for the hunt. Dressed in a flannel shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots, Cruz told the moving tale of his father, an immigrant from Cuba who hit it big in the oil boom in Canada, lost it all and ended up as an itinerant pastor in Dallas. The father poured everything into his son, enrolling him in not just Bible-study but also Constitution-study classes, so that he became a world-class debater.
The business world is running away from the Cruz wing because its antics have cost money; by one estimate, the economy took a $24 billion hit from the shutdown. But those aren't the people a Republican needs to win the nomination, especially now that the activists are weary of giving mainstream losers such as Romney a twirl around the dance floor.
Like many a man in a hurry, Cruz could self-destruct. But social conservatives, especially those with a mean streak like King, are disproportionately influential in the early polling. They are happy to go out on a snowy night to listen to long speeches in steamy church basements while drinking burnt coffee. In their eyes, even Sen. Rand Paul is too much of a libertarian and too soft on social issues. Unless the field gets seriously overcrowded with everyone, past and present, on the right jumping in (Mike Huckabee is toying with another run) and dividing the ultraconservative vote, the early money is on Cruz. I'm taking bets at Bloomberg.com.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)