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Rick Santorum could be a thorn in Ted Cruz’s side in 2016. Here’s why.

Was the end result of Ted Cruz's effort to derail Obamacare in the recently concluded budget debate a good one? Rick Santorum doesn't think so.

"I would say that in the end, he did more harm," Santorum said Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press," adding that while Cruz's aim was worthy, his follow through wasn't effective.

Does it matter what Santorum, a failed 2012 White House contender, thinks of Cruz, a freshman Texas senator and rising conservative star? Yes. Because of Iowa.


(David Goldman/AP)

Cruz made his third swing through the first-in-the-nation caucus state over the weekend, building more bridges with conservative activists and stoking more chatter that he will run for president in 2016. If he does, Cruz will be spending an awful lot more time in the Hawkeye State, because the nominating caucus there, dominated by GOP activists, is his natural political base.

There's little reason to doubt that Cruz could compete for Iowa in the GOP presidential sweepstakes. But he's not a shoo-in. And one factor that could well determine how far he goes is what Santorum decides to do.

The eventual winner of 2012 Iowa caucuses, Santorum hasn't ruled out another run. And in a swing through Ames in August, the former Pennsylvania senator was received very warmly at a Christian conservative confab. In his speech there, he even name-checked local establishments just in case anyone forgot how much time he spent stumping there last cycle.

In short, Iowa conservatives really like Cruz. And they really like Santorum. And that's where it gets complicated.

Santorum caters to the far-right wing of the Iowa GOP caucusgoers. So does Cruz. If he runs for president again, Santorum would face very, very long odds. The potential 2016 GOP field looks much, much stronger than 2012's offerings.

But that doesn't mean he can't affect the outcome of the race. Santorum would likely compete for many of the same voters Cruz would go after. And he'd be well-positioned to pull away some support.

Santorum has lately been sounding some pragmatic notes aimed at instructing the GOP about how to better equip itself to win national elections. His belief that Cruz didn't do the party any favors and his remark in Ames that the party needs to improve its "tactics" reflects this. As odd as it may sound, there have been shades of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's "just win baby" message in what Santorum has been saying.

The reason why that might sound odd is that Santorum is a social conservative culture warrior who is unapologetic in his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. His pragmatism only extends so far, which is one of several reasons why Santorum's overall potential as a candidate as limited.

But he can still pack a punch in Iowa, where face time is crucial and familiarity matters. And with his criticism of Cruz, Santorum just signaled that he might well go after the Texas senator in a campaign with the results argument. As in, what results have Cruz's crusades yielded for the GOP and the conservative movement?

Coming from more moderate Republicans, that argument would prompt some eye-rolling among conservative activists. But coming from Santorum -- who is one of them -- the line of thinking might resonate more.

Even if Santorum doesn't run, his endorsement in Iowa will no doubt be widely sought. While he has had many good things to say about Cruz -- he even said on CNN he was "with" Cruz in the fight against Obamacare last month, though he reserved judgement on how effective his strategy would be -- it's not a certainty that Santorum would back him in 2016.

Asked on "Meet The Press" whether Cruz is the face of the conservative movement, Santorum responded, "I think he's a face."

That's hardly a big, wet political kiss. And for Cruz, that's enough reason to be at least a little worried.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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