On the surface, at least, Tuesday was a very bad day for Sen. Ted Cruz – a “punch in the gut” according to NBC News Meet the Press host Chuck Todd.
It began with veteran Republican Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad urging voters to oppose the Texas senator at the crucial Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses because he vigorously opposes continued federal support of corn-based ethanol and other biofuels mixed with gasoline.
For years, ethanol has been Iowa’s “Third Rail of Politics” — touch it and you die. Branstad told reporters that Iowans should not support anyone for president who opposes something so “critically important to the economic well-being of our state.”
But the real gut punch to Cruz, the current frontrunner in the Iowa GOP contest, was Sarah Palin’s high-profile endorsement of Donald Trump during an event in Ames, Iowa, a development that dominated the political news cycle.
Palin, the media-savvy former Alaska governor, 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, one-time Fox News analyst and former reality TV star, warmly embraced Trump, a media-savvy real estate tycoon and former reality TV star.
It was one of the more dramatic moments in the critical GOP campaign in Iowa, where Cruz has stunned Trump by moving a few points ahead of him in the most recent polls. Earlier in the campaign, the two candidates had professed to liking each other, but what many, including Trump, referred to as a “bromance” has clearly soured. Cruz criticized Trump’s more moderate “New York values,” while Trump has raised questions about the Canadian born Cruz’s “nastiness” and eligibility to serve as commander in chief.
At Tuesday’s event, Palin stormed on the stage and hugged Trump. “Are you ready to make America great again?” she exhorted the crowd, invoking Trump’s campaign slogan.
In a frenetic, sometimes screeching tone, Palin praised Trump’s business experience and mastery as a negotiator. She dismissed criticism from Cruz and others that Trump lacked adequate conservative credentials and praised him for “going rogue” against Establishment Republicans. And she cited what she claimed was Trump’s readiness to be commander in chief while blasting President Obama for being a “weak-kneed” apologist who failed to back up his troops and sailors.
“Are you ready for a commander in chief who will let our warriors do their job and go kick ISIS’s ass?” she roared. “Ready for someone who will secure our borders, to secure our jobs and to secure our homes? Ready to make America great again? Are you ready to stump for Trump? I’m here to support the next president of the United States, Donald Trump. “
Palin no longer packs the wallop she once did on the campaign trail and conservative speaking circuit. By the time Fox News decided not to renew her contract last June, her net favorability among Republicans had declined by more than 55 percentage points from where it stood in mid-2013, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.
Moreover, she puzzled many Iowans with a weird, rambling speech she delivered in January 2015 at the Iowa Freedom Summit. When she reached the finale of her speech, few people rose to their feet to cheer or applaud, according to reports. Others simply seemed puzzled.
Still, she can still generate considerable buzz among the media and voters. And as David Graham of The Atlantic wrote, “there’s a natural affinity between Trump and Palin,” even though Palin embraces a more radical Tea Party brand of conservatism than Trump has and still connects better with Evangelical Christians than the billionaire businessman.
Cruz and his campaign advisers tried to take the day’s events in stride, shrugging off Branstad’s denouncement and arguing — in somewhat convoluted form — that it actually would hurt Palin’s reputation if she endorsed Trump.
“I think it [would] be a blow to Sarah Palin, because Sarah Palin has been a champion for the conservative cause, and if she was going to endorse Donald Trump, sadly, she would be endorsing someone who’s held progressive views all their life on the sanctity of life, on marriage, on partial-birth abortion,” Cruz’s campaign press secretary, Rick Tyler, told CNN.
Cruz told reporters that he was still beholden to Palin for helping him win his 2012 Senate race, and that regardless of what she does, “I will always remain a big, big fan.” But he didn’t fully mask his disappointment that his one-time ally was supporting the one person currently blocking his path to the head of the GOP field.
A recent Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll shows Cruz is on top in Iowa with 25 percent support, ahead of Trump with 22 percent, although the poll has a 4.4 percentage point margin of errors.