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Ted Cruz stumps in Wisconsin as a working class hero

Republican presidential candidate  Ted Cruz makes a stop at the Armory restaurant in downtown Janesville, Wis., on March 24. (Anthony Wahl/The Janesville Gazette via AP)

MADISON, Wis. – When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) pointed into a camera and called Donald Trump a “sniveling coward,” he was surrounded by sheets of metal about to be stamped into shape. When he blamed “Trump and his henchmen” for a salacious National Enquirer story, he did so in “a factory that is the largest producer of road cones in the United States of America.”

Those details didn’t exactly lead the news.

As pundits wring their hands and curse the tone of the Republican presidential primaries, Cruz has been demoing a new message for a voter bloc that has mostly spurned him. In TV ads and artfully staged rallies, Cruz is talking more about trade and turning his cocktail of economic ideas – “repeal Obamacare,” “rein in the EPA,” “end welfare benefits for those here illegally” – into a “morning in America” vision of growth.

“We’re gonna see millions and millions of new high-paying jobs, manufacturing jobs, like these jobs, coming back to America, coming back from China, coming back from Mexico,” Cruz said in Oshkosh, at a factory stop so earthy that the smell of gas from heaters wafted through the warehouse of Lakeside Plastics. “We’re gonna see wages going up for Americans all across Wisconsin and all across this country. And we’re gonna see young people coming out of school with two, three, five job offers… ”

Cruz’s basic plan, which would replace the current code with a 10 percent income tax and 16 percent “business flat tax,” has remained unchanged and controversial since he introduced it last year. On trade and immigration, he has edged steadily closer to Trump’s position that current trade deals are unfair and undocumented workers suppress wages for everyone else.

Until now, the working class voters this is aimed to have been picking Trump over Cruz. According to the exit polls in Illinois and Michigan, states that border Wisconsin and held effectively three-way contests between Cruz, Trump, and Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio), Trump has won around 45 percent of voters who make less than $50,000 per year, and 46 percent of voters who lack college degrees.

Cruz has run anywhere from 12 to 21 points behind with those groups. That’s one reason he was forced to abandon his original plan, of building a delegate lead in Southern states, with the current backup plan of becoming the “stop Trump” candidate of the Republican mainstream. In the process, he’s telling blue-collar voters to count on tax cuts bringing back jobs.

“He doesn’t have the credibility to make that argument,” argued former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, who has endorsed Kasich for president. “The argument for Kasich is that if you’re unemployed or underemployed, take a look at what I’ve done for the people of Ohio.”

Cruz’s economic pitch is an attempt to pour the old wine of supply-side into the even older bottles of “America first” populism. In one of three new TV ads, which began airing in Wisconsin over the weekend as part of a $350,000 buy, Cruz says that families are “worried they’re falling behind” and promises to “raise wages and bring jobs back to America” as the phrase “fair trade” floats onscreen.

In another ad, an actor playing an anonymous small businessman sets up for the day, remembering “the tough times when higher taxes nearly cost us our shop” and worrying about “Donald Trump’s empty promises.”

Another, straight-to-camera ad has the senator sounding more populist than ever. “Washington pads Wall Street’s pockets, hard-working Americans get left behind,” he says; soon, a narrator promises that “Cruz’s plan will bring jobs back from China.”

That, in the ad’s disclaimer text, was verified by former Club for Growth president and current Heritage Foundation economist Stephen Moore. In a column, he praised Cruz’s tax plan as an alternative to tariffs, one that “would level the global playing field for American manufacturers, tech firms and drug companies and bring these jobs scampering back home.”

In other words, Cruz had come up with an “America first” pitch that did not rattle the conservative elite that was walking terrified of Trump. He demonstrated that at several Wisconsin stops, telling a man in Oshkosh that Trump’s idea of punishing trading partners would not work.

“He’s very good at saying ‘jobs have gone overseas,’ and he’s right,” Cruz said in Oshkosh. “His idea is put a 45 percent tariff on all imported goods. Now, a tariff is a tax. So he’s saying to everyone here that he’s gonna put a 45 percent tax on you. When you’re at the store, when you’re buying diapers, when you’re buying your next car, take the price, and increase it by 45 percent. That’s disastrous! Look, people are struggling already, and the immediate result of that would be people putting reciprocal tariffs on the other end. Last time we did that, it was called Smoot-Hawley, and it helped contribute to the Great Depression.”

This over-stated the expected impact of tariffs – but it synced with what mainstream conservatives had to say. And in the next eight days, in Wisconsin, Cruz doesn’t need to add every blue collar voter to his coalition of conservatives. He just needs to win more of them than he had been.

It’s a work in progress. The Ivy League lawyer who paces factories in ostrich-skin boots does not yet sound as natural as Trump – whose collars are even whiter. In Oshkosh, Heidi Cruz’s version of pride in the cone factory was to say that “we interact as consumers with products that are critical to our economy.” At the Thursday stop in Dane, Cruz’s chivalry in defense of his wife played better than his economic spiel.

“I want to talk to all the single moms who are working two or three jobs, who’ve had your hours forcibly reduced to 28 or 29 hours a week, because Obamacare kicks in at 30 hours a week. I want to talk to all the truck drivers, all the mechanics and plumbers and steelworkers, all the union members – all the people with calluses on your hands whose wages have stagnated year after year.”

The crowd was mostly male, mostly quiet – except when Cruz went after Obamacare. Craig Calkins, 60, said after the speech that the Affordable Care Act was the reason his pacemaker had gone from an afterthought to a serious expense. And Nick Becker, 35, said that Cruz was right about stuck wages. But he intended to vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“Everything’s getting overtaxed,” said Becker. “I think he understands where we’re coming from.”