DES MOINES, Iowa — The sealed doors of a third-floor ballroom burst open and hundreds of excited preachers, buzzed from their early-morning coffee and a passionate speech by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, spilled into the hallway of the Des Moines Marriott hotel.
Speaking before about 650 church leaders during the Iowa Renewal Project conference last week, Cruz had just outlined his own conservative vision for the country and called on members of the audience to hold Republicans accountable. It was Cruz's first trip to Iowa in his life, and, based on the response from those who watched him speak, he was a hit.
Conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats and Iowa radio host Steve Deace in particular were beaming when they left the room.
“He’s the real deal,” Vander Plaats, the president of Urbandale-based Family Leader, said after Cruz’s talk. “You can sense the reaction in the room with pastors and key leaders in churches. I think what they see — which is what I see — is authenticity with him. He’s not on talking points. He’s speaking from the heart. Given the urgency for real leadership in this country, I think that’s why people really like him.”
“If there was a sign-up sheet for Cruz 2016 in there, I think it would have filled up really fast,” Deace said.
Cruz’s popularity with Iowa conservatives such as Vander Plaats and Deace will be beneficial to him if he chooses to launch a presidential bid. Cruz is already planning to return to Iowa next month to keynote a Family Leader conference with Vander Plaats in Ames, and he also addressed a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party after his meeting with the pastors.
In 2011, Vander Plaats, an influential figure among social conservatives in the state, helped breath life into Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign when he endorsed him before the Iowa caucus. Now, he’s looking for a new leader to champion. (When I mentioned to Vander Plaats that he was a “big supporter” of Santorum last year, he quickly corrected me: “Not big,” Vander Plaats said. “I came in the last two weeks of the campaign to endorse him.”)
For now, Cruz is definitely on his radar, and the signal’s strong.
Cruz has not said publicly that he’s considering running for president, but his presence in Iowa 1,200 days before Election Day suggests that he’s weighing his options. It is during early gatherings like the Iowa Renewal Project and the Family Leader summit where prospective candidates can make first impressions with influential conservative faith leaders and begin to lay the groundwork should they decide to pursue higher ambitions. As a relatively unknown lawmaker in Iowa, politicians like Cruz must start meeting with leaders in the state early — yes, even this early! — to boost their name ID with Republicans in the state. Potential candidates such as Santorum, and to a lesser extent, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, already benefit from having a longstanding presence in the state.
At the pastor’s conference, Cruz, wearing ostrich-skin boots, a powder-blue necktie and an impeccably tailored suit, instantly stands out in a crowd. With perfectly-groomed hair and a tall stature, he looks like a politician. When he speaks—at least when reporters are around—he sounds like one, too. An award-winning debater and public speaker, Cruz chooses his words and phrases with great care. He remains strictly on-message, but his fondness for generalities and cliches doesn’t seem to give fellow conservatives pause.
What helps distinguish Cruz, however, is that he has the voting record to back up his rhetoric. The Texas lawmaker ranks as one of the most conservative senators in the chamber, and despite being in Washington for only a few months, he has quickly made a name for himself as an uncompromising rabble-rouser who doesn’t shy away from confrontations or conflict. And that’s exactly the type of Republican that many in the base are looking for.
But can Cruz, if he decides to run for president, get past the talking points, drill down into specifics and connect with voters? Based on the responses from his maiden speech on Iowa soil, he seems to be off to a galloping start.
“Iowans view sincerity probably more than any other trait in a candidate in either party,” Deace said. “They want to know, is there a there to there? Is there a real person there? Can I relate to you? That’s key.”
For now, Deace senses authenticity from Cruz, which he trumpeted to his followers on Twitter.
“I am cynical and hard to please, but I have never seen anything like Ted Cruz,” Deace wrote. “Could unite conservatives like no one has since Reagan.”
After Cruz’s meeting with the pastors in Des Moines, Vander Plaats turned to Deace.
“I think you’ve got a man-crush on him,” he said.
“Yeah,” Deace replied, according to Vander Plaats. “I think I kinda do.”