Opinion writer

This post has been updated: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly stated that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) had authored no bills that became law. This version has been updated.

Momentum in primary campaigns is a mysterious thing: impossible to manufacture, easily squandered, and often misidentified. But there’s little doubt that at the moment, with two months before the Iowa caucuses — a period that will fly right by, I promise you — Ted Cruz has it.

In that critical first contest, Cruz has leaped toward the front in two new polls: he’s essentially tied with Donald Trump in the latest Quinnipiac poll (Trump has 25 percent, Cruz has 23), and in a CBS poll released yesterday he’s in second place. If voters are ending their fascination with Ben Carson, Cruz is the natural recipient of Carson’s votes, which come primarily from evangelicals, whom Cruz has been courting assiduously for some time.

There are candidates who come from nowhere, capture voters’ imagination for a time, and then fade, as Carson may be doing. But Cruz built his candidacy for the long term, and it’s about to start paying off.

I’m not the first person to suggest that Ted Cruz might actually win the nomination — see Jamelle Bouie’s take right here. But from one angle — probably yours if you’re a member of that vaunted Republican “establishment” — the idea of Cruz being the GOP nominee is absurd. He’s been in the Senate for less than three years, he’s never written a significant law, let alone one that meaningfully advanced conservative goals, he has no foreign policy experience or executive experience, and he’s a singularly unpleasant person, despised in Washington by Democrats and Republicans alike. If he somehow won the nomination, it would be a disaster for the party to rival Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964.

All of that is true. But it’s probably also irrelevant. Because in many ways, Ted Cruz is the perfect candidate for this moment in Republican history. At a time when the party is defined by the struggle between the establishment and the insurgents of the Tea Party, almost no one is as vehement an opponent of that establishment as Ted Cruz. Unlike every other candidate, he hasn’t done anything to make the party’s base suspicious of him. His record of hatred toward Barack Obama is unblemished. And he may be the only candidate (with the exception of Donald Trump, whose case is obviously unique) who has over-performed in this race, exceeding expectations of what he is capable of. He hasn’t had any major screwups or miscalculations. Only Jeb Bush has raised more money than Cruz, who has done so with a balanced mix of small and large donors.

If you’re a liberal you probably find Cruz utterly repellent, a smarmy character who oozes phoniness from every pore. But most conservatives don’t see him that way. More than anyone else, he knows how to talk to them in their language. There may be no one in the race who has a better grasp of the base voter’s psyche — what they think is important, which buttons to push, and which carefully crafted lines and jokes (repeated over and over) will touch them just the way they want to be touched. Cruz is the smoothest talker of all the candidates (which is why he does so well in debates), and even if he never bothers to go deeper than applause lines on policy, the voters don’t seem interested in depth. While the new (though by no means permanent) focus on terrorism seems to be hurting Carson, it’s not hurting Cruz. What Republican voters are looking for isn’t experience or a plan to stop ISIS, but a particular attitude, one of anger and belligerence. Cruz can perform that just fine.

So consider this scenario. As Carson fades, Cruz keeps winning support in Iowa, where evangelical voters are a dominant force. He wins the caucus on February 1, winding up on the front page of every newspaper and in demand by every TV station. That vaults him up to second or third in the New Hampshire primary, which takes place a week later. Then the campaign moves south, for the South Carolina primary on February 20, a brief detour to Nevada on the 23rd, and then Super Tuesday on March 1st, which will include Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, and Cruz’s home state of Texas — southern states with lots of evangelical voters where he could do very well.

Unlike Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, the last two winners of the Iowa caucuses, whose victories were a surprise and who had to scramble to establish organizations in the upcoming states, Cruz is building a serious organization spread across the country, ready to capitalize on any momentum he garners.

After Iowa and New Hampshire, and certainly after Super Tuesday, the field will winnow considerably. We’re likely to see at least five or six candidates drop out during those couple of weeks, narrowing the voters’ focus to the few who are actually winning primaries. And if Donald Trump is one of them, Cruz could suddenly look to a lot of people like the saner choice (we’ll leave for another day the question of whether he actually is saner than Trump).

Most of the GOP candidates need a dramatic transformation in the race for them to have any chance at all; unless something unexpected and cataclysmic happens, they’re not going to be contending for the nomination. But for Ted Cruz, everything is going pretty much according to plan.