Ted Cruz Is The Frontrunner For The Republican Nomination

What happens when you combine establishment credentials with a true believer.

The next week will involve a lot of talking about the "wide open" contest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, about the strong field, about whether the strong field is irretrievably damaged, about how there isn't a clear frontrunner.

This isn't true. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — the true outsider, the tribune of the grassroots, the ruthless lawyer — is the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination.

This is not trolling. This is serious. Conservatives vote in Republican primaries. And Cruz is really good at talking to conservatives.

Even his enemies will concede Cruz is smart. And his resume is strong — Princeton and Harvard Law School; success at the highest level of American law; serious jobs in federal and state government; and an underdog Senate victory in 2012. The strikes against Cruz as a Republican candidate usually run something like this: He doesn't poll well; the shutdown freaked people out; he can be grim; he's not well-regarded among Senate Republicans. Cruz, who quickly replaced Jim DeMint as the most hated man on Capitol Hill, has been underestimated for what is basically a credential: Even Republicans in Washington hate him.

Let's work through the rest of this like a geometric proof.

Yes, in the first big Iowa poll last month, Cruz trailed some other Republican contenders.

But more than a year before the Iowa caucuses, presidential polls are just tests of name recognition. And so they tell us one thing: The Democratic field is very closed; the Republican field is very open. That's it. Mitt Romney polls very well for that reason — high name recognition in a field of parity.

There's actually a much more important poll number out of Iowa, one that's much more telling about the voters there, and bodes better for Cruz than anyone else considering a run for president.

Check out, from this weekend's big Des Moines Register poll, the top reason voters say Joni Ernst is worth voting for:

No single issue has united Republicans more for five years now. No one — not Rand Paul, not Marco Rubio, certainly not Chris Christie, who expanded Medicaid under Obamacare — has fought Obamacare's implementation in a more demonstrated way than Cruz. Clearly, he shut down the government in a ridiculous, nonstarter effort to "defund" the law. On Sunday, Cruz told the Washington Post that Republicans should "pursue every means possible to repeal Obamacare." Merits of the shutdown past and reconciliation future aside, dismantling Obamacare has been the core issue of Cruz's political career — he ran on it in his Senate bid. This was his pitch in 2012: "I'm not running as a lawyer. I'm running as a fighter."

The portfolio has to go beyond Obamacare, though. And based on the speeches Cruz has been giving lately, here's the kind of pitch Cruz is probably going to make to conservatives: I will lower taxes, I will protect religious liberty, I will enforce immigration laws strictly, I will defend Israel, I will restore America's robust presence in the world.

Stumping for Republican Senate candidate David Perdue in October, he emphasized the Hobby Lobby case, the threat of ISIS, and immigration. He has a small library of failed legislative efforts to back these up. In print and on stage this year, he's gone hard defending Israel.

It all sounds like a lot of the conservative priorities right now. And presumably, these are not random choices.

"As Sun Tzu said, every battle is won before it is fought," he told Texas Monthly's Erica Grieder, who's written the best profiles of the senator. He was speaking of his litigation career, but he could have been talking politics. "It is won by choosing the terrain on which the battle is fought."

Then there's this, perhaps the most important thing, and something that may surprise reporters who find him stiff and distant: If you put Cruz on a stage and then on the ground in the middle of a bunch of Republican families, he is warm, funny, and sincere.

Cruz's dour image might actually play to his advantage a little, insofar as it dramatically manages your expectations. I was in Georgia last month, outside Savannah, watching Cruz campaign for Perdue. Here's what he opened with:

"You've seen the news about people jumping the fence at the White House — the guy who jumped over the eight-foot fence in front of the White House earlier this year. The Secret Service tries to run him down. They finally catch him, and they turn to him and say, 'I'm sorry, Mr. President, you've got two more years!'

This week, somebody again jumped over the fence. The Secret Service catches this one, too, and this time they say, 'I'm sorry, Hillary, not yet!'"

The laughter cut through the crowd — mostly families and older couples at a farm — and then turned to loud applause at the real punch line: "And not ever!"

It's, like, not a bad joke. He had others. He delivers them well. Ted Cruz can be funny.

The biggest applause of the afternoon, though, may have been for Cruz's bill to strip Americans who join ISIS of their U.S. citizenship.

"You want to know how radical and extreme the Democrats are? The Democrats stood up on the Senate floor and blocked that legislation," Cruz then said to a small gasp of a reaction.

"Jesus," one man said. Cruz left out the full details of the bill's outcome: He asked for the bill to be passed by unanimous consent, despite the complex legal issue of stripping citizenship. One senator, Mazie Hirono, objected on reasonable procedural grounds — the bill hadn't been considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It sounded good in Georgia, though. And Cruz is good in this kind of setting.

He thanked person after person for coming to the event, intent and serious, posing for photos and talking to little kids like they were adults. And while Cruz kind of talks to reporters like a character in a 19th century novel — performative and clipped — his rapport with supporters is far more natural.

"I just wanted to shake the next president's hand!" one woman told Cruz after the event; a number of others offered similar sentiments.

Cruz radiated sincerity in Georgia, and complex mental gymnastics aren't involved to imagine it working in Sioux City, Iowa, or Spartanburg, South Carolina. He can fluidly shift from an emotional appeal to a one-liner and back. And if he exaggerates, if he leaves out critical details, if he turns the somewhat reasonable into the outrageous — well, Ted Cruz isn't running as a lawyer, he's running as a fighter. You can trust him to always fight for conservative principles. And conservatives are the ones voting in Republican primaries.