LAS VEGAS — Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) wanted to barnstorm Nevada as the winner of the Iowa caucuses, the only candidate who “has defeated Donald Trump” and the one who could do it again.
Instead, Cruz spent some of the scant hours Monday between Saturday’s South Carolina primary and this state’s caucuses firing a well-liked spokesman, Rick Tyler, who had shared an inaccurate Facebook video of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) appearing to disparage the Bible. It was a dramatic attempt to end accusations that the candidate who speaks before the slogan “TrusTed” is a cyclone of dirty tricks.
“Rick Tyler is a good man, and this was a grave error of judgment,” Cruz said at a news conference before the first of three campaign stops Monday. “It turned out that the news story he sent around was false, but even if it was true, we are not a campaign that is going to question the faith of another candidate.”
By quickly demanding Tyler’s resignation — a move so sudden that Tyler got word on a TV set where he’d intended to defend Cruz — a candidate who has followed a single narrative and strategy since Day One was trying to get it back. It was welcomed by Cruz’s supporters in the March 1 states, who had been hearing the “dirty tricks” drumbeat since rival candidate Ben Carson blamed Cruz for a rumor that he was quitting the race.
“I think both the Trump and the Rubio campaigns have seized on the narrative that if they say ‘liar’ enough, enough people are going to believe it, and I think that has manifested itself into some people questioning, albeit incorrectly, the real moral character of Senator Cruz and of this campaign,” said Louie Hunter, Cruz’s Georgia co-chair. “If people are starting to question Senator Cruz’s character, it’s because if you call people a liar enough, people start to say, ‘Gosh, there might be something.’ ”
The Rubio campaign, through spokesman Alex Conant, had used the moment to identify what it called a “culture in the Cruz campaign” in which “no lie is too big and no trick too dirty.”
Speaking to reporters on a flight from Reno to Las Vegas, Rubio said Tyler is the “fall guy” for Cruz’s campaign. “I feel bad but at the end of the day he was doing his job in a culture that every single day was coming up with something that isn’t true. And this was just the latest example of it,” Rubio said.
And even before the Facebook mess, Cruz’s campaign was struggling to match expectations. The candidate begins every news conference with a mantra that has not changed since the days before the Iowa caucuses, repeating it as if to make it true.
“What we are seeing happening here in Nevada mirrors what we’re seeing happening nationally,” Cruz said before stops in Pahrump and Las Vegas. “We’re seeing the old Reagan coalition coming together. We’re seeing conservatives, we’re seeing libertarians, evangelicals, Reagan Democrats, young people, all uniting behind this campaign.”
Yet in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries — both states won by Ronald Reagan on his march to the 1980 presidential nomination — Cruz fell short. Since his March 2015 campaign launch at Liberty University, Cruz and campaign manager Jeff Roe have talked about winning the “lanes” of the Republican Party, from libertarians to evangelicals to fiscal conservatives to hawks.
That open calculation contrasts with the big-tent messaging of Trump, who has defeated Cruz twice, and Rubio, whose campaign spent Monday announcing fresh endorsements from Republicans who had gone down with the Jeb Bush shipwreck. In South Carolina, it was the billionaire Trump, not Cruz, who romped with the working-class white voters and evangelicals Reagan counted on. According to exit polls, Trump beat Cruz by 16 points among voters who lacked college degrees and by eight points among born-again Christians.
“It’s really been a long time since the Reagan coalition was put together,” said Ed Rollins, the national political director for Reagan’s 1984 reelection. “The critical factor in 1984, when we had a landslide, was that we went out and registered 6 to 7 million new voters. We found blue-collar Democrats and made them Republicans. Right now I don’t see Cruz doing that. I just think they’re all trying to lay claim to the mantle of Reagan.”
On Monday, there were no signs that Tyler’s firing would presage a greater Cruz shake-up. Instead, there was frustration at how a candidate who had methodically lined up endorsements from conservative heroes such as Glenn Beck was not being treated like a front-runner. Asked why conservatives are not consolidating behind Cruz or why the candidate is portrayed as dishonest, Cruz’s allies and voters see the same culprit: the media.
“When you have a person win 30 percent of the vote but get 90 percent of the coverage, it’s hard to break through,” said Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), an arch-conservative who endorsed Cruz after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) quit the race. “Fox News won’t even mention anybody but Trump or Marco. It’s incredible.”
But there were growing concerns among some Cruz boosters. Conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace critiqued Cruz’s strategy in a piece for Conservative Review, writing that Cruz needs to expose and stop Trump.
“Trump is playing for first place or go home,” Deace wrote. “Now go, and do likewise.”
Cruz’s Nevada events, which have drawn hundreds of voters, reveal the virtues and limits of the “lane” strategy. In Pahrump, a city that gave a lopsided 2012 victory to former congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.), libertarian-minded Republicans swarmed Cruz.
Katreen Romanoff, 78, had been a Paul delegate to the state convention and is working just as hard for Cruz. To her frustration, she keeps meeting blue-collar conservative voters who want to send a message and vote for Trump.
“They won’t listen to reason,” Romanoff said. “Look what Hitler did. They followed him. They fought for him. They died for him. It’s like a hypnotism.”
Rich Bushart, 62, another former Paul delegate, who carried a Glock pistol on his belt, agreed that “there’s a similarity” between Trump and Adolf Hitler.
In Las Vegas, Cruz attempted to use the Tyler firing as a reset button. More than 800 tickets were distributed for the raucous rally. When three protesters got up to jeer Cruz’s stance on privatizing federally owned land, the candidate was interrupted by cheers as he discussed a niche issue that separates him from Trump.
“Eighty-five percent of the state of Nevada is owned by the federal government, and that will end if I’m president!” Cruz said. “There is no reason on Earth the federal government should be the largest landlord in the United States of America. In Texas, the federal government owns 2 percent of the land, and we think that’s 2 percent too much.”
Zezima reported from Washington.