The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Huckabee swings and misses at Cruz on marriage

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In 2008 and 2012, the Iowa caucuses were pushed to the first week of January, thanks to some extremely un-generous wrangling between the early primary states. Adapting to that, campaigns cut together homey Christmas-themed ads. You had to be on the air; you might as well be nice about it. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, perhaps the master of the form, went up with a spot about "what really matters."

Former Arkansas gov. Mike Huckabee shares his holiday greeting on what really matters during the 2007 Christmas season. (Video: Mike Huckabee for President)

Luckily, the 2016 caucuses aren't until Feb. 1, and campaigns can eschew sentiment for attacks. This year's pro-Huckabee spot, via the Pursuing America's Greatness super PAC, goes for some kind of prize in selective editing. It grabs from an audio file first released by Politico's Mike Allen, an exchange between Cruz and an unnamed man at a fundraiser in Manhattan. Huckabee himself has accused Cruz of saying "something very different at a big donor fundraiser in Manhattan than at a church in Marshalltown." The ad accentuates that.

"Listen to Cruz raise money in New York City from liberals who don't share our conservative Iowa values," says a disappointed-sounding narrator.

"So would you say it's like a top-three priority for you — fighting gay marriage?" asks the questioner.

"No," says Cruz.

"Remember," says the narrator, "the next time Ted Cruz tells you he shares your values, there are two Teds."

The problem is that the audio did not stop after "no." The longer version of the question asked where Cruz put gay marriage on his to-do list, "given all the problems that the country’s facing, like ISIS, the growth of government." After the "no," Cruz quickly expanded on the point.

"No, I would say defending the Constitution is a top priority," he said. "And that cuts across the whole spectrum — whether it's defending the First Amendment, defending religious liberty, stopping courts from making public policy issues that are left to the people. And I also think the 10th Amendment to the Constitution cuts across a lot of issues."

The gulf between "not a priority" and "not a top-three priority" is notable. In his current stump speech, which he delivered over the past week across March 1 primary states, Cruz does not mention gay marriage at all. He talks about religious liberty, specifically that on his first day as president he'd drop the government's case in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell.

So, the conservative paying close attention to Cruz knows where he is on gay marriage. He has signed the National Organization for Marriage's striking pledge, which commits candidates to not only fight gay marriage in court but to undo executive orders that grant partnership rights to gays. In early December, NOM endorsed Cruz, part of a landslide of social conservative trophies that Huckabee is trying to hold back.

Were they fooled? Actually, they seem to be rewarding Cruz's ability to navigate questions like these. The evidence that he has softened on gay marriage is limited to a June interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep. At the time, the network reported a clip from it with the headline "Opposition To Same-Sex Marriage Will Be 'Front And Center' In 2016 Campaign."

But Cruz, perhaps the best rhetorician in politics, left that impression without saying the words. Inskeep asked about the fresh Supreme Court rulings on marriage and the Affordable Care Act, but noticed that Cruz saved his passion for only one of them.

"You made a statement about these two rulings, denouncing them both," said Inskeep. "And then saying that repealing Obamacare will be a central issue in the 2016 election. You didn't say that same-sex marriage would be. Is that a lost cause for your side?"

Cruz said "no," and pointed to his own (doomed) constitutional amendment to restore to states the power to define marriage.

"I have called for another constitutional amendment, this one that would make members of the Supreme Court subject to periodic judicial retention elections as a very real check," Cruz said. "Twenty states have retention elections they put in place if judges overstep their bounds, violate the Constitution, and the people have a check to remove them from office. I've called for that change. That is very much front and center, something I intend to campaign on."

What was "front and center," again? Not gay marriage. It was Cruz's array of constitutional fixes, which if enacted would handle the gay marriage issue.

One of 2016's worst-kept secrets is the disdain some candidates in the "social conservative lane" have for Cruz. Huckabee personally resented the way Cruz flew into the rally for Kim Davis. Santorum has accused Cruz of pandering and "isolationism." Neither can conceal their ire that the slick Cruz has drained their support in Iowa, to the extent that the last two winners of the caucuses are relegated to the "undercard" cable debates.

Their problem is that social conservatives, who feel they fumbled away the 2008 and 2012 nominations, are happy to have a slick candidate of their own. They don't see Cruz saying one thing in Manhattan and another in Muscataine. They see him outsmarting people, and they think getting someone in position to appoint judges in 2017 is worth the slickness. Huckabee's attack, so at odds with his winning 2008 persona, does not pierce Cruz's armor. It reveals it.