FARFIELD, Iowa — The stakes for Ted Cruz heading into the Iowa caucus are getting higher.
Donald Trump’s decision to skip Thursday’s Fox News Channel Republican debate puts Cruz in the spotlight — for better or worse. Should Cruz do well and end up winning Iowa, he’ll have momentum heading into contests past New Hampshire. But should he lose, he may never be able to break through as GOP voters look elsewhere for an anti-Trump candidate.
A growing number of Cruz’s campaign donors, allies and associates are considering what the road ahead would look like should the Texas senator lose to Trump in Monday’s caucuses, particularly if that means Trump would be, in Cruz’s words, “unstoppable.”
“A vote for anyone else is a vote for Trump,” Cruz told an older well-wisher here privately after an event under a Valentine’s Day-themed quilt.
“To be honest, even if you want another candidate to win the nomination, if Trump wins Iowa, that just sucks the oxygen out for everyone,” he added. “So, just think about it.”
Trump leads Cruz 30% to 23% in a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday.
With less than a week until the caucuses and even with Trump upending all plans by stunningly deciding not to participate in the debate, Cruz World is not outwardly scrambling. Backers remain confident that the race is at worst a toss-up, and believe that their organization on the ground means they have the advantage in a coin flip.
The closing argument: If you want to stop Trump, Cruz is your best — and perhaps only — option. And there’s no time to waste.
“The people who are loyal supporters of Carson, Huckabee and Santorum should send them a thank you card for their commitment to our country, and then just vote for Cruz,” said Iowa Rep. Steve King, one of Cruz’s top supporters here.
“This has now become a binary decision,” King said. “Either you’re from Trump, or your vote needs to be Cruz.”
Cruz forces are making that choice clear by blanketing the airwaves: On Tuesday, the main super PAC supporting Cruz unveiled its fourth negative ad on Trump in the previous 24 hours — the seventh total pro-Cruz, anti-Trump spot released since Friday. And across Iowa on Tuesday, Cruz’s official campaign trotted out Rick Perry, the former Texas governor widely known for his retail skills and ability to connect with everyday Iowans.
The Iowa ground here is the most fertile territory for any candidate to beat Trump in any early voting state, and Cruz on the stump appeared to share a newfound sense of urgency in closing the deal. He was counting down the hours to caucus day at every stop (“143 hours” he said at a community center here.) He was blasting Trump as a “gremlin” for impugning the reputation of one of his top Iowa surrogates, Bob Vander Plaats. And those surrogates and he were repeatedly telling crowds that this is a “two-man race” for the GOP nomination, effectively telling Iowans that their only options on Monday are either Donald Trump, or to stop Donald Trump.
“This is the place and time where it is easiest to do that,” said Bryan English, Cruz’s Iowa state director, saying the caucus process would vet Trump in ways that later states wouldn’t. “If you look at the electoral map, it doesn’t get any easier after Iowa.”
Cruz on defense
Making next Monday a referendum on Trump is far cry from when Cruz last touched down in Iowa at the beginning of the month, when Cruz’s campaign was projecting an outright win and he was leading Trump by double digits in some polls.
Now, Cruz uses phrases like “neck-and-neck,” “dead heat,” and “essentially tied,” to describe the state of the race, abandoning some of the swagger that his campaign had just a bit ago.
And revealingly, Cruz’s friends have begun offering critiques of the polling industry that they used to herald — surveys this late are inaccurate, one said; you can’t measure a caucus, another added — speaking to how the numbers no longer favor them like they once did.
Cruz led Trump by a few points in Iowa polls at the beginning of the month, before Trump began a ceaseless attack on Cruz’s eligibility to be president due to his being born in Canada. Cruz’s polling averages in Iowa have fallen and Trump now leads most surveys.
It was an alarm sounded by Cruz himself at a private meeting on Monday evening here in Iowa, when Cruz pontificated on the idea of a Trump win and what the consequences would be for the GOP.
“If Donald wins Iowa, he right now has a substantial lead in New Hampshire, if he went on to win New Hampshire as well, there is a very good chance he could be unstoppable and be our nominee,” Cruz said in a video of the event recorded by the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Looking to the South
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Cruz tried to walk back the declaration, pointing to his strength in Southern states that vote March 1 and stressing that he is running a “national campaign.” People close to the campaign stress that its fundraising gives it several shots to take down Trump, especially in delegate-rich states that vote later in the calendar.
“He can wipe away a loss in New Hampshire, in Iowa and South Carolina with a single win in Texas,” said one campaign fundraiser. Of particular value to the Cruz campaign, in the eyes of this fundraiser — the quick departure from the race of Ben Carson, who could retain some of his conservative support well past Iowa: “They’re going to make this race a little bit closer than some would like.”
It’s not just Cruz supporters sounding the alarm about what a Trump win here would mean. Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for George W. Bush’s re-election campaign, said Trump would be “very hard to stop” as the “dominoes begin to fall.”
“He begins to run the table,” Dowd says of the GOP calendar if Trump wins on Monday. “Only way I see a real path for the establishment to stop Trump is if he loses Iowa. And I see no path for Cruz unless Cruz wins Iowa.”
People close to the Cruz campaign stress that they will win on Monday if turnout is not abnormally high — with some pegging it around 130,000 votes on caucus night. But though they have not seen signs of a top-tier turnout operation, sources concede that if turnout is significantly higher — say, above 150,000 votes — there is little the Cruz campaign can do to stem the Trump tide.
And people are already looking to what happens if Cruz finishes in a close second, arguing that it won’t mean he failed there given how long Trump was dominant in the Hawkeye State.
“The expectation was that he wins Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — and the question was: Can anybody beat him?’ said one person close to the campaign, who said Cruz could still emerge as a victor even with a loss.
But the person conceded: “A lot of it will depend on the margins.”
CNN’s Betsy Klein contributed to this report