Ted Cruz went to Iowa this past weekend and received a hero's welcome.
There's little question that if a poll of likely 2016 Republican Iowa caucus-goers were conducted today, Cruz would be in either first or second place (behind Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul). He is the candidate of the party's conservative activist base, an influential bloc of voters who view him as one of the only politicians in the country willing to stand on principle no matter the consequences.
But leading a poll conducted in October 2013 and winning a caucus conducted in January 2016 are two very different things. And so the real question for Cruz is whether his Iowa profile ultimately looks more like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Bachmann was Cruz before Cruz -- the tea party-backed outsider who fought the fights more "pragmatic" politicians in Washington, D.C., weren't willing to take on. And, like Cruz, that approach made Bachmann a rock star in the state of Iowa. We still remember Bachmann being mobbed everywhere she went in Iowa in the summer of 2011, a wave of popularity that drove her to victory in the 2011 Ames Straw Poll, allegedly a precursor of the caucus roughly six months later.
But that Ames win was the beginning of the end for Bachmann, as a series of self-inflicted wounds (her vaccinations remark being perhaps the most memorable) and bad timing (Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race on the day of the straw poll and sucked much of the oxygen out of her win) robbed Bachmann of the buzz she had built up to that point. By the time the caucuses rolled around -- and, in truth, for several months prior -- it was clear she wouldn't come close to winning. Bachmann took 4,823 votes to win at Ames; 144 days later, she got 6,046 votes in the caucuses -- sixth out of the six candidates actively competing in the state.
On the other end of the Iowa spectrum is Huckabee, who began the 2008 Republican race as an absolute unknown -- in Iowa and everywhere else.
If Ames served as Bachmann's undoing in 2011, it made Huckabee in 2007. He finished second, roughly 2,000 votes behind presumptive front-runner Mitt Romney, but -- as we wrote at the time -- Huckabee emerged from Ames as the real winner. A former pastor who proudly wore his religion on his sleeve, Huckabee was the candidate many social conservatives in Iowa had been looking for but hadn't known existed until Ames.
Huckabee's "aw shucks" personality, sense of humor and charisma ensured that he was more than just a one-hit Ames wonder. He emerged as the "heart" candidate for many Iowa Republicans while Romney was -- and this is his legacy in both 2008 and 2012 -- the "head" candidate. Iowa GOPers loved Huckabee and, well, they liked Romney well enough. When the caucuses were over, it wasn't all that close, with Huckabee at 34.4 percent and Romney a distant second with 25.2 percent.
What made Huckabee and Bachmann so different? Timing, for one. Bachmann peaked at the Ames straw poll in 2011; Huckabee's win was the start of his rise. The two candidates also took vastly different approaches to their campaigns. Bachmann held heavily managed rallies in which she got up, gave a speech and left in her famous/infamous bus. (If you need evidence of that tendency, make sure to watch A.J. Schanck's terrific documentary "Caucus.") Huckabee, by contrast, seemed to revel in the far more free-form nature of his candidacy. Bachmann struggled to move beyond her stump speech lines about repealing the health-care law and making President Obama a -- wait for it -- one term president. Huckabee, once the national spotlight found him, seemed to grow into it, emerging as a forceful voice on a wide panoply of topics.
So, which is Cruz? Well, his early popularity in Iowa certainly looks more like Bachmann than Huckabee. But, as his 21-hour filibuster on Obamacare demonstrated, he appears to have a depth and breadth of knowledge -- as well as a broader theory of the case -- that Bachmann never really showed on the campaign trail.
The danger for Cruz, at the moment, is overexposure. While Cruz is already far better known in Iowa and nationally than Huckabee was at this point in the 2008 campaign, the Texas senator would do well to study the path to victory that the former Arkansas governor followed. Slow and steady, but always ready to capitalize when the right moment arrived.
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