EXETER, N.H. -- At first, it sounded like a friendly question. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) had offered an audience of at least 150 people here his usual promise to "answer or dodge" anything, and one man used the opportunity to ground the event in history.
"Abraham Lincoln gave a speech right near where you're standing," said the voter.
"Wow!" said Cruz, turning his head to look at the stage of Exeter Town Hall.
Then, the question. "I'd like for you to reconsider your position on ethanol," said the voter. "Ethanol is a policy in use for gasoline, put in place during Jimmy Carter's administration. Since then we've had a shale revolution, in oil and gas. Ethanol takes more energy to make than it saves."
Cruz, who had just 24 hours earlier been attacked by Iowa's Republican governor Terry Branstad -- over his opposition to a renewable fuel standard -- looked uncharacteristically surprised. Inside the town hall, he'd already promised a veteran that he would oppose any energy mandates.
"Can I ask you something, sir?" Cruz said. "What do you understand to be my position on ethanol?"
Without a beat: "I think you were originally opposed to it, then you changed."
Cruz smiled. "I think you're going to be happy with my answer," he said, to applause. "My view on energy is that there should be no mandates, no subsidies, for any form of energy."
Over five minutes, Cruz expertly relayed the patter he had come to repeat again and again across Iowa. He was against mandates -- bravely against mandates. He had told corn lobbyists to their faces that he did not side with them.
"Just yesterday, Donald Trump promised not only to protect the ethanol mandate, but to expand it!" Cruz said. "To even do more picking of winners and losers! So I'm getting hit, literally, with millions of dollars of attacks on exactly this issue."
Branstad's comments, a sort of anti-endorsement of Cruz, had nearly been drowned out by the same day's news that Sarah Palin would endorse Trump. But in a Tuesday press scrum, Cruz had visibly been more interested in the Branstad snub than the Palin one. Branstad had described a theoretical Cruz victory as a disaster for the state, and said that the candidate would tumble "as Iowans learn about his anti-renewable fuel stand, and that it will cost us jobs, and will further reduce farm income."
Cruz has tried to limit the damage of his stance, relying on Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) as his ambassador to farmers; simultaneously, he has tried to make the ethanol position into a personal profile in courage. Just 20 days before the primary, his surrogates had a little more work to do if they were going to school voters on the latter -- especially as attack ads from the allies of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) portray Cruz as a flip-flopper. (A "VAT-man" and an Edward Snowden impersonator were dispatched to the steps of the Exeter Town Hall to make that point.)
"He does what he says he's going to do," said state Rep. Bill O'Brien, the conservative former speaker of New Hampshire's House, and a Cruz endorser. "That's important to voters here, no matter what the issue is."