Frank Bruni: Ted Cruz won’t be denied

MANCHESTER, N.H. – Another Ted Cruz rally, another Ted Cruz rant about the media’s failure to give him his due. I endured one in the tiny town of Weare, New Hampshire, on Thursday afternoon and had two thoughts.

The first was that I’d seldom heard a voice as ripe with self-regard – as juicy with it – as his. He’s pomposity’s plum tomato.

The second thought was that he’s right.

We’ve sold him short. We continue to underestimate him. He’s even craftier than we appreciated. He’s more devious than we realized.

And he has a better chance to win the Republican nomination than we want to admit, because he’s not just a preternaturally slick political animal. He’s an uncommonly lucky one.

He’s getting huge, unintended breaks from Republican elders and rivals who mostly detest him and rightly believe that he’d lead the party to ruin in a general election but are distracted by other quarry – Donald Trump, Marco Rubio – and are letting him slither by.

At first Trump was their obsession. The self-appointed caretakers of conservatism at National Review went so far as to pack the sum of their energies and anxieties into an entire issue devoted to taking down Trump, even though their readers aren’t his supporters and their exertions only underscored his pitch that he’s not part of the system.

“It was a mistake,” the Republican strategist Alex Castellanos told me. “If they really wanted to create space for an electable conservative like Rubio, they should have disqualified Cruz. Just dumb.”

For most of last week it was Rubio’s turn as preferred target. Usually the victor of the Iowa caucuses winds up in the cross hairs in New Hampshire, and Cruz certainly took plenty of shots over his operatives’ spreading of false news in Iowa that Ben Carson was ending his candidacy and that Carson’s evangelical supporters should move quickly to a pew in the Church of Cruz.

But much of that fire came from Trump, and at this point, an attack from him is like a bray from an ass: a reflexive facet of the organism’s nature and a noise too frequent to warrant much heed.

Other Republican contenders were more focused on Rubio, in some cases relentlessly so. Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie all see New Hampshire as a reckoning, Rubio as their greatest obstacle and his turf as the ground that they can and must claim.

Christie’s last-gasp strategy was to turn Rubio into a limp, soggy chew toy, and the New Jersey governor was all jaws.

As The Times’ Michael Barbaro and Jonathan Martin wrote, he mocked Rubio “as a cosseted ‘boy in the bubble,’ derided him as ‘constantly scripted,’ likened him to ‘the king of England,’ and, perhaps most creatively, compared his Senate career to that of a helpless fourth grader who is told which chair to sit in at school.” The Times story additionally noted that there had been unusual communication between the Christie and Bush campaigns about how to halt Rubio’s apparent rise.

By one calculation, just the super PAC supporting Bush has lavished nearly $25 million on attack ads against Rubio, chiefly in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, whose Republican primary is next up after this state’s. Less than half that amount has been spent on all ads against Cruz, and spending on New Hampshire ads against Rubio since Jan. 1 has been quadruple that of spending on those against Cruz.

That doesn’t mean that Cruz will finish in the top three in New Hampshire, which is as much of a mismatch for him as Iowa was a perfect fit.

But you’d be foolish to rule that out, and what matters more is that he almost certainly won’t be crippled here. He’ll most likely have ample money and momentum as he pivots to the exceedingly hospitable terrain of South Carolina and a cluster of Cruz-friendly Southern states that will hold primaries during the first week of March.

If Carson does exit the race by then, Cruz may have a greater monopoly on religious conservatives than any other remaining contender has on any other block of voters.

And even in Midwestern states that vote in the first half of March, Cruz could be a formidable force. Think back to 2012, when Rick Santorum won Minnesota and Missouri and lost to Mitt Romney in Michigan (which Romney’s father once governed) by just 3 points and in Ohio by less than 1. Cruz is to some extent Santorum’s second coming, but with more guile, more gall, more money and a better organization.

Citing the Santorum example, two of the bluntest, smartest Republican strategists I know confided to me that while they think the race is still unpredictable, they’d wager on Cruz as their party’s nominee if forced to make a bet.

They cringed as they said it. He appalls them. But he also impresses them. He knows what he’s doing and he’ll do what it takes.

He won Iowa with a wicked stew of Bible thumping and mischief. On the trail, he spoke in messianic, apocalyptic tones about a country on the edge of an abyss; behind the scenes, his team not only spread the false news about Carson but also mailed out “voting violation” notices that attempted to shame Iowans into heading to the caucuses (and voting for Cruz). This was hardly an unprecedented tactic – Rubio did something similar – but Cruz was especially slippery about it.

He’s especially slippery, period. He’ll summon outrage over same-sex marriage in front of an audience that thrills to that, but he’ll shrug his shoulders about the issue in front of donors who prefer a milder response, as The Times’ Jeremy Peters and Maggie Haberman recently reported.

When I caught up with him here in New Hampshire, a state without Iowa’s concentration of evangelical voters, there wasn’t the same abundance and timbre of God talk that I’d heard from him in Iowa.

Instead there was feminism.

New Hampshire, it should be noted, has a female governor and two female senators, and it’s possible that women will play an especially consequential role in the Republican primary here on Tuesday.

Perhaps coincidentally, Cruz convened a bunch of us journalists for a quickie news conference in Weare and made a proclamation: Carly Fiorina, who had been lobbying for inclusion in the final debate before the primary, should be allowed onstage, no matter what the polling baseline was and whether she’d met it.

“She has worked hard,” he said. “She has run a diligent campaign. She’s inspired a lot of people and she deserves to be up there.”

He was orotund with gallantry. He brimmed with chivalry.

In the end Fiorina failed in her bid, but Cruz succeeded in presenting a version of himself that I’d not yet had the pleasure of meeting: the knight in sliming armor.