DES MOINES, Iowa — For months, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has flown under the radar in the Republican presidential race, an unusual position for a politician who has been in the spotlight since arriving in Washington nearly three years ago.
Now, Cruz is trying to ride a standout performance in last week's GOP debate into new momentum for his campaign. He's casting himself as the conservative the party's right flank has been waiting for — someone who's both uncompromising and electable.
"How about this time we nominate as Republicans a candidate as committed to conservative principles as Barack Obama is to liberal principles?" Cruz said Saturday during a Republican forum in Des Moines.
Cruz is running an operation with important advantages.
He ended the last fundraising period with more campaign cash on hand than any other candidate. He has a well-funded super political action committee that has been spending money to on television advertising. His fights with Republican leaders in Washington have made him a well-known figure among conservatives frustrated with the party establishment.
But even with those assets, Cruz has spent months mired in the middle of the large GOP field. While he positioned himself early to absorb Donald Trump's supporters if the billionaire businessman stumbled, Trump is still a commanding presence in the primary.
Cruz also faces a new challenge with the rise of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is drawing support from religious conservatives.
The debate provided Cruz with the kind of breakout moment that could jumpstart his White House bid. He slammed the CNBC debate moderators for asking questions in a way that he said "illustrate why the American people don't trust the media" and challenged them to ask "about the substantive issues people care about."
On Saturday, Cruz stepped up his critique of the debate moderators. He was cheered enthusiastically by the 2,000-person crowd when he called for future debates to be moderated by conservatives such as radio host Rush Limbaugh. Following his remarks, he was mobbed by voters seeking autographs and handshakes for nearly an hour.
"He's honest," said Pam Malone, a 64-year-old Republican from Des Moines who was holding a Cruz sign. "If he says it's something, he's going to do, he does it."
With the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses approaching, Cruz aides say they see an opportunity to form a coalition of tea party supporters, evangelicals and libertarians. Cruz is a tea party favorite and aides say he is having some success drawing libertarians unimpressed by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Evangelicals, however, are up for grabs, with Cruz and Carson competing for support with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
If Cruz can unite those three voting groups, aides say it would put him in a strong position to go head to head with the candidate that emerges as the choice of the party's more moderate, business-focused wing. That's shaping up to be a fight between Floridians Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie struggling to stay in the mix.
Cruz's strategy faces its first test in this leadoff caucus state. His campaign has eight paid staffers in Iowa and is trying to recruit endorsements from pastors in each of the state's 99 counties.
Cruz is also angling for key endorsements from conservative leaders in the state. Following his remarks in Des Moines, Cruz headed to conservative northwest Iowa for a pheasant hunt with Rep. Steve King, who has wide influence in the state. In mid-November, he'll speak at a forum hosted by Bob Vander Plaats, head of the social conservative organization The Family Leader.
Beyond Iowa and the other early voting contests, Cruz is focusing significant attention on the Southern states that vote in early March. The campaign sees the conservative-leaning states as fertile ground for the Texas senator and believes victories there would set Cruz on track for the nomination.
The 44-year-old Cruz was elected to the Senate in 2012 and quickly established himself as a thorn in the side of Republican leaders. He was a driving force in the 2013 partial government shutdown and Republican efforts to tie funding the government to starving President Barack Obama's health care law of money. To that end, he conducted a 21-hour filibuster on the Senate floor.
While Cruz has made his share of enemies among establishment Republicans, his willingness to take on his own party is seen as an advantage among voters who believe the GOP leaders compromised too much since taking control of Congress.
"I like how he's tough on the Democrats — and the Republicans," said Terri Studer, 55, a Republican from Des Moines who is leaning toward caucusing for Cruz.
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This story has been corrected to show that Rand Paul is a senator, not a House member.