AMES, Iowa—It’s like the landscapers are mocking us. On Saturday morning, a substantial rump of the political press corps has flown into Des Moines and driven the 30 minutes up to Iowa State University. The FAMiLY Leader, a coalition of social conservatives, has booked a concert hall for an all-day schedule of speeches and prayers, adjacent to the site where the Iowa Republican Party usually holds its for-profit straw poll. The lawn that’s usually auctioned off to presidential candidates and occupied by gaudy tents and food trucks is being resodded. Of course it is—there are two years until the next straw poll.
And yet inside the concert hall, it’s already primary season. Rick Santorum, who’s been in the state for two days and already hit a party fundraiser and the state fair, fields questions from a dozen reporters who want him to commit to 2016. One asks him if he caught “lightning in a bottle” last time when he narrowly won the nonbinding precinct caucuses, and whether he now needs a new strategy and larger staff. “Three hundred and eighty town hall visits and 99 counties last time,” says Santorum, holding back an eye-roll. “I don’t know if that’s catching lightning in a bottle.”
A few steps away, Iowa Rep. Steve King walks through hypotheticals about the next Republican field. Does Rand Paul have the advantage? Should candidates be here already?
“It’s always important to be here early,” says King.
Jonathan Martin, the roving New York Times reporter, sets the time machine even further in the future—summer 2016, when the party will hold its convention. “Is it important that the next winner of the caucus be the nominee?” he asks.
“It’s still relatively early in the process,” says King. “What we do in Iowa is, we punch one, two, or maybe three tickets to New Hampshire.”
The focus on the 2016 presidential contest is completely ridiculous, and everybody knows it. After he followed Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul to a Des Moines summit of pastors in July, Yahoo News reporter Chris Moody joked that “running into other reporters in Iowa for presidential coverage in 2013 is like locking eyes with a church friend at a strip club.”
But this isn’t any earlier than usual, and it’s not really the media’s fault this time. The way social conservative see it, they’ve blown two consecutive primaries to a moderate candidate—one who’s gone on to lose the presidency. Iowa’s supposed to be the Thunderdome that boosts one of their own. In 2012, a majority (57 percent) of caucus-goers were evangelical Christians and a plurality (47 percent) considered themselves “very conservative.” They split their votes and gave the narrowest of mandates to Rick Santorum, and that was two weeks after the FAMiLY Leader endorsed him. What could have happened had the rest of the movement been quicker on the draw. Could they have avoided the distractions of Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich?
They want to find out. That’s what’s driving the presidential talk around Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who arrived in his first elective office this past January. Jamie Johnson, who’d been Rick Santorum’s coalitions director in Iowa, tells me that Barack Obama “changed the game” in 2008 and proved that someone with just a little time in D.C. could win. “He was in for one year and he was already laying the groundwork.” This is why he’s switched from Santorum to Cruz, who doesn’t have “10 years of votes to apologize for.”
“Before, there was never a mixture of the limited government, fire-breathing prophet with a Christian conservative, moral-based guy,” says Johnson. “When the conservative base of the Republican Party has a David, to use a biblical analogy—when they have their David, it’s obvious who their David is—it doesn’t matter where the money is. Ted Cruz is the only guy who fits that bill. He’s the only one who can speak to the religious right, to the economic conservatives.”
The implication, although Johnson is being genteel about it, is that Santorum can’t. Santorum gets 20 minutes to address the 1,000-odd conservatives in Ames, who fill about half a room that recently saw tours from Bill Cosby and Shrek: The Musical. Santorum spends the time on dark lessons, with personal anecdotes, of how his movement keeps blowing it. He mourns how the 2012 Republican National Convention obsessed over Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” gaffe by giving floor time only to aggrieved business-owners.
“Not one time did we see someone from the factory floor walk out there and talk about working for the man or woman who built that business, and talk about how that helped them,” he says. “Not everybody in America is a type-A personality who’s going to spend 80 hours a week building their business.” Telling this alternate history lets Santorum’s audience imagine how somebody else—not naming names!—might have run in 2012.
Oh, and he’s not done settling scores. Santorum tells the audience of a time he met with potential donors in New York, and how they spent the meeting grilling him on social issues. “I asked, ‘Did you ask the other candidates up here about their moral positions?’ ” he says. “They said, ‘You’re different.’ I said, ‘Why am I different?’ They said, ‘Because you mean it.’ ”
The audience cheers this righteous smackdown of the snobs, and cheers even louder when Santorum tells them to take pop culture back from Hollywood. He’s not giving them a special, tailored speech; he gave basically the same speech to Republicans in Lyon County*, two days earlier, at one point telling them to stop repeating “Marxist” jargon like “middle class.”
It just sounds defensive. Cruz, who has already cracked double digits in the ridiculously early polls of caucus-goers, takes the afternoon of the summit with a neat trick that outsources the negativity. His father, Rafael, a Cuban-born pastor, precedes him with a speech that’s one-third about his son and two-thirds about how candidates who promise “hope and change” are paving the road to serfdom. “In 1976 I was shocked when I saw a government starting to implement socialist policies in this country, which perhaps the majority of this country didn’t recognize,” he says. “Having seen socialism at work, I clearly recognized the socialist policies of Jimmy Carter.”
It’s a hit. More than one activist tells me that the senior Cruz’s story takes away an advantage that has belonged to Marco Rubio—the crowd-pleasing parable of Obama as Castro. After a short break, Ted Cruz himself arrives, walking back and forth across the stage in black ostrich-skin cowboy boots, delivering old jokes about the root words of “politics” being “poly” and “ticks” before getting to applause line after applause line about his battles in Washington.
“The American people want to secure the borders first,” he says, to applause. “We want to welcome and celebrate legal immigrants.” Applause. “And there is no more forceful advocate for securing the borders than Iowa’s own Steve King.” Yet more applause. Cruz doesn’t actually mention any “social issues.” He invites the audience to join a “grass-roots army” (and his PAC) and adds that he has objects “thrown at me” when he talks about defunding Obamacare in the Senate. He repeats a riff on “you didn’t build that” he’s been using since at least December 2012. “The untold story about the economy is about those who’ve been hurt—the least among us. If you were flying a private jet five years ago, you’re still flying a private jet.”
Cruz leaves the stage and reporters flood the hallway he’s expected to use when he heads to the airport. The senator takes his time, talking to pastors backstage. When he emerges, the press tries its best to pin him down on a 2016 schedule. He turns every answer into a statement about Obamacare.
“The biggest fight facing Congress right now is the fight to defund Obamacare,” he says. “The only way we will get this done is if millions of activists mobilize.”
“You’re here in Iowa to rule out running for president?” asks one reporter.
“I am here and traveling across Texas and across the country to help mobilize the grass-roots,” says Cruz.
Jonathan Martin, trying to invert the question, asks whether the struggles of America’s current one-term-senator-turned-president might, you know, inform Cruz in any way. “I respect President Obama,” says Cruz. “He is a man who is firmly committed to his principles.” Alas, “I think the principles he believes in are profoundly dangerous.” He spends three minutes explaining exactly why, and why it’s so important to defund Obamacare.
Seeing the pointlessness of the 2016 questions, I ask Cruz whether the president needs to go further on FISA and spying transparency than he did on Friday. “I’ll wait till I watch the remarks before coming to a conclusion,” he says. Thoroughly defeated, I walk past Rafael Cruz, who’s holding a shrink-wrapped copy of the The Founders’ Bible. The massive edition of the good book, decorated and annotated with facts about Revolutionary-era religion, has been selling from a booth at the summit. Cruz got a copy from J. Albert Calaway, a pastor whose organization Truth, Values, & Leadership attempts to draw pastors into politics. “We’re looking at perhaps doing some kind of a pastor’s conference,” says the senior Cruz.
Calaway, who’s walking back to the booth, explains that he’s trying to speed up the process for finding an ideal presidential candidate. “I vetted five of the Republicans last time,” he says. “I’m starting to vet the people out there now much earlier. I don’t come out for anybody unless I’ve been behind closed doors with ’em for at least an hour. Cruz and his dad and I are gonna have a few pow-wows. Maybe we’ll see if we can do a conference. I have right now 35,000 pastors organized around the country, and I’m gonna see if I get it to 50,000. See if I can get ’em out of the closet to do something.”
Correction, Aug. 12, 2013: The article originally misspelled Lyon County. Return to the corrected sentence.