STORM LAKE, Iowa -- If Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Iowa) wins the caucuses here, he will have gripped Iowa's third rail, shaken it, and walked away with only minor burns. Since the 2005 passage of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates an amount of corn ethanol be blended with gasoline, every Iowa winner has signed on. But the standard is set to expire in 2022, and any defender of the Export Import Bank can tell you what happens when a post-tea party GOP comes across an expiring government program.
Cruz entered the Senate as an opponent of any mandate. He initially opposed the RFS, full stop; in 2014, he introduced legislation that would phase out the RFS over five years, from whenever said legislation took effect. That's much less than any other Iowa contender is offering the ethanol lobby. America's Renewable Future, a group that has multiplied its budget to trail candidates this year, saw an opportunity this week to goad Cruz. It started after he spoke in Cherokee and Sioux Center, in western Iowa, and told audiences that if he were elected the RFS was gone by 2022. That didn't light up the room, or even make it into the stories of embedded reporters.
Then came Wednesday.
11:01 a.m. -- It begins. Delayed slightly by an impromptu news conference about North Korea, Cruz enters Union Jack's Grill and delivers his 20-minute stump speech, then takes questions. There's only one about the renewable fuel standard, and to the casual observer, Cruz knocks the canvas off the ball. "We need to get the federal government out of out of the business of putting barriers in the way to develop all of our tremendous energy resources," he says. Then, back on the bus.
11:45 a.m. -- The Des Moines Register goes live with an op-ed by Cruz, inspiringly titled "I'm fighting for farmers against Washington." As in his speeches, he dismisses the RFS attacks as the work of "lobbyists" who want Iowa to "depend" on the decadent capital. And as in his speeches, he tries to explain that raising the ethanol blend limits for fuel would do more for the industry than any silly mandate.
"Because of this EPA wall, the market is currently dominated by low-level ethanol blends, such as 'E10' (10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline)," Cruz writes. "That has prevented mid-level ethanol fuels, such as E25 or E30, from widely reaching American consumers. If allowed full market access, mid-level ethanol products like E25 or E30 could prove quite popular with American consumers."
12:45 p.m. -- Cruz speaks at the Lantern coffee house in Sibley. There's a more general question about energy -- in his answer, Cruz makes sure to talk about the "level playing field" he wants, for Iowa and everyone else. After the speech, he is buttonholed by a farmer named Wayne Van White, who wants to know about the RFS. Cruz pivots quickly to his idea of lowering the "blend wall."
"It makes it functionally illegally to sell mixes of gasoline with mixes higher than E10 or 15," he says. "As president, I would end that rule, and at the end of the day I think that would have a far greater impact for farmers than a mandate."
Cruz thanks Van White -- "it's a question I'm answering a lot on the trail" -- and the farmer, who's in his 60s, says the answer was as good as he could realistically hope for.
"I'm just concerned that he's promoting oil more than the farm deal because he's from Texas," says Van White.
1:12 p.m. -- The trolling, which had been underway, reaches fever pitch. America's Renewable Future shoots out a press release thanking Cruz for "listening to farmers" and evolving on the RFS.
“Farmers and rural communities across Iowa are going to be encouraged by Sen. Cruz’s remarks," says ARF's Eric Branstad -- who happens to be the son of Iowa's Republican governor-for-life, Terry Branstad. "He is clearly listening to the people of Iowa and understands the importance of the Renewable Fuel Standard to America’s economy and energy independence, as he started the caucus process calling for immediate repeal."
The material for this claim was in Cherokee and Sioux Center. Plenty of reporters were there -- and are suddenly confused at what changed, if anything. On conservative media, among people just now hearing what Cruz said, the hot takes turn bright white. "Don't look now but Ted Cruz just caved on ethanol," writes HotAir's Jazz Shaw. Even Tim Carney, the Washington Examiner's eagle-eyed watcher of rent-seeking in the GOP, thinks that Cruz has let people down.
2:51 p.m. -- Cruz hits a Godfather's Pizza in Spirit Lake, and ARF follows. As voters crowd into the restaurant's crowded dining room, some clutch fliers from the ARF that pronounce almost every candidate to be a defender of farmers. Two are not: Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
"You're going to be beset by millions of dollars of lies," Cruz warns his audience.
5:10 p.m. -- Cruz's campaign bus pulls into a venue in Spencer, for a long-scheduled news conference. The first question, from Huffington Post's Iowa reporter Samantha-Jo Roth, is about ethanol.
"I've been following you for about a year, asked you about the RFS," she asks. "Why haven't you been saying this to concerned farmers?"
"Well, the premise of your question is incorrect," says Cruz. "What I have said consistently is that we should phase out the RFS. Indeed, I filed legislation in 2015 that has a five-year phase-out of the RFS. That has been my position."
Roth follows up with the heart of the question. "Why haven't you been saying it to farmers?" she asks.
"I have been saying exactly that," says Cruz. "I recognize that there was an attack press release put out by the lobbying group, that is a bunch of lobbyists and Democrats attacking me. I know this is a shocking proposition for you, that a bunch of lobbyists who oppose me might actually say something that is not true."
A little while later, at the event itself, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) introduces Cruz with a little patter about how he vetted every candidate. Cruz "checked every box," and as they got to know each other, he checked boxes King did not even know existed. Then comes Cruz, then the speech, then the Q&A -- and the second question is about ethanol.
"Thank you for that question," says Cruz, in a studiously pleasant tone that someone might use when thanking a police officer for stopping his car. "Let me give you my view on energy: God has blessed America with tremendous energy resources... but I don't believe government should be picking winners or losers. I don't believe there should be any mandates or subsidies for any forms of energy, across the board."
The crowd applauds. "When it comes to the RFS," Cruz continues, "I have supported phasing out the RFS over five years. There's no oil or gas subsidies, there's no solar subsidies, there's no wind subsidies." He warns of "lobbyists and Democrats" scaring voters with lies "that this Cruz guy doesn't like ethanol, doesn't like corn," and says that the "blend wall" should come down so that people can buy gas that's more than 10 percent ethanol.
No protest breaks out, until Cruz is finished speaking. Armed with information from ARF, a woman (who prefers not to give her name) races to the part of the stage where King had been standing. She shakes a receipt from a gas station, revealing her purchase of a gas blend that was... 15 percent ethanol.
"You can't just listen for something that's wrong and focus on that," King says.
"You've got to talk to him about this," says the voter.
"I'm doing it!" insists King.
"You said you were backing him before he checked the box," she says.
King, a consummate retail politician, spends nearly five minutes telling her about his personal journey with Cruz, how the two of them have talked about energy, and how "the ads are lies" that don't reflect where the candidate ended up.
5:55 p.m. -- The Cruz campaign issues a statement on the "false accusations from the ethanol lobby," telling anyone who might be confused that "Cruz has consistently supported a five-year phase out of the Renewable Fuel Standard" and "first introduced the five-year phase out in 2014." The pushback seems to be working; Tim Carney, for example, has scrapped his column about the Cruz flip-flop with a column about how the lobbyists were misleading people.
8:30 p.m. -- The ARF has become Cruz's personal Anton Chigurh. At the day's final event, at a resort hotel in Storm Lake, the lobby TVs silently play Donald Trump's new CNN interview. Chryons inform everyone that he still has questions about Cruz's presidential eligibility. But no one in the crowd asks about that. Instead, a farmer named Kirby Todd gets up and informs Cruz that "some research on the Internet" indicates that the candidate hates ethanol. By now, Cruz has honed his argument to a combination of attacks on lobbyists, paeans to the free market, and a hat tip to Steve King.
It's the most tense exchange of the night. Kirby, like Wayne Van White, walked away appreciative for the bluntness but not sure if he was sold. Once again, King bats clean-up. He stands near a Christmas tree, and voter after voter comes by to ask what the heck Cruz is going to do about the ethanol industry. King has said elsewhere that Iowa's delegation will fight for everything Iowa farmers can get, whoever is president, and he says that even more forcefully by the Christmas tree.
"Me, Grassley, and Joni Ernst -- we're not that easy to run over," he says.
King is buttonholed by Richard Marshall, a 58-year-old farmer, who doesn't quite get why Cruz's drawn-down of the RFS over five years is better than what Iowa has now.
"It incrementally makes us get ready to increase that market share," insists King. "The thing I have a little apprehension about is that little window as the RFS steps down. But he's the only guy I know that's going after this from the anti-trust law standpoint. He knows that law better than anyone running."
Cruz is long gone, but King keeps talking, then gets a folder from the campaign bus, then runs into an NBC reporter who wants to know just a little more about the RFS standard.
EPILOGUE, THURSDAY 9:27 a.m. -- The Cruz campaign's press bus is almost fully loaded for day four. Spokesman Rick Tyler is taking over as chaperone. Once he's counted the reporters in their seats, he looks to his right and sees it -- the ARF camper, still and empty, waiting to trail Cruz yet again.
"I'm going to go put a sticker on that -- now that they're being so nice to us," he says.
One by one, the reporters realize he is serious. A small scrum follows Tyler as he marches over to the camper, cleans off a section on the back, and pulls out a decal with the iconic Cruz flame. He plasters it on, then turns to half a dozen cameras.
"I want everybody to know there's no hard feelings," he says.