WILTON, Iowa — Sen. Ted Cruz is closing his campaign for the Hawkeye State GOP crown by wrapping himself in the memory of the Ronald Reagan, the late iconic conservative president.
Republican presidential candidates over the years have habitually harkened back to Reagan, who left office 27 years ago this month, as a calling card to prove their conservative bona fides. But Cruz in multiple campaigns stops across Iowa on Friday went further. The Texas senator asked likely caucus-goers to remember the peril the U.S. faced in 1980 after four years of Democratic President Jimmy Carter, and how voters across America elected Reagan and ignited a turnaround.
"We have faced these challenges before; we have faced the abyss before, and the American people rose up and pulled this country back," Cruz said in southern Iowa's Muscatine County, as he told a story about Reagan's 1981 inauguration. "I tell you tonight, we have done it before, and if we come together we can do it again, we can restore this shining city on a hill that we love so very, very much."
"I think where we are today, it is very, very much like the late 1970s, the Jimmy Carter administration," Cruz said earlier in the day, during a campaign stop up in northern Iowa's Emmet County. "Same failed economic policies, same feckless and naïve foreign policies … Now, why is it that that analogy gives me so much hope and optimism? Because we remember how that story ended."
Cruz since launching his campaign last year in March has talked about re-establishing the Reagan coalition, and motivating "Reagan Democrats" to vote Republican, like so many Democrats did in 1980 when Reagan was first elected. Republican pollsters have questioned how realistic this strategy is on its face, given that the political makeup of the electorate was different back then, and that most Reagan Democrats long ago become regular Republicans.
But stylistically, what Cruz is trying to do is inspire his supporters to believe that a committed conservative, whose rhetoric on fiscal and social issues isn't watered down to appeal to swing voters, can win a national election in a political environment that appears to have tilted toward the Democrats in recent years. Cruz is banking on a strategy that unites all factions of conservative voters to overcome the Democrats' demographics and gender advantages.
As a result, he is among the few Republicans running for president to reference Reagan so often. With Reagan having left office nearly four decades ago and many voters having no real memory of his presidency, most GOP White House contenders in the 2016 contest have mentioned him sparingly, preferring to focus on a future-oriented themes, rather than calling back to past policies and a past leader. Not so for Cruz.
For Cruz supporters who recall Reagan, the comparisons to that time in U.S. history, and the implication that he is another Reagan waiting to save the country, works. "He's building on Reagan's tradition, so to that extent I support it," said Vincent Motto, 68, an attorney who joined others in a packed community center in Wilton, in Muscatine County, to hear Cruz speak. "It brings back good memories."
For younger voters who don't remember Reagan, the message doesn't resonate. But neither is it necessarily a turnoff. "I wasn't around for any of that, so I guess it really doesn't — I don't really know much about it," said Kyle Draves, a 25 year-old mechanic who plans to caucus for Cruz. "I really like him," Draves added. "I think he's an honest man. I don't think he's talking off of a script like the other ones."
The Iowa caucuses, the first votes of the Republican primary campaign, occur Monday evening. Over the past few months, Cruz has traded the lead in public opinion polls with Donald Trump, the billionaire celebrity businessman from New York. The latest polls show Trump in the lead, followed by Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; everyone else is far back in single digits.
But on Friday, Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe predicted that Cruz would win, and win strong.
In a sign of either confidence or concern, team Cruz also shifted its negative advertising away from Trump and dumped it all on Rubio. In an interview with conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt just prior to speaking in Wilton, where he was introduced by Sen. Charles Grassley, Cruz barely criticized Trump, who had been the sole focus of his fire as recent as Wednesday, and he unloaded on Rubio.
Cruz criticized Rubio's immigration policy, saying he's lied to voters and can't be trusted. "Given that, it is awfully hard for the voters to trust that he will honor additional promises he's making on the campaign trail today," the Texan said.
The Rubio campaign responded swiftly. "No longer content to campaign on a record exposed for putting political gain ahead of principle, Sen. Cruz is resorting to making up his own facts," spokesman Joe Pounder said in a statement.