TRUSSVILLE, Ala. — Ninety minutes before Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) arrived at the civic center here, 60-year-old Dennis Gantt stood outside and seethed. He had watched the latest Republican presidential debate, then the follow-ups. And he’d watched Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) insult his intelligence.
“I’ve followed Cruz for a long time,” Gantt said. “When the ‘Gang of Eight’ was pushing the immigration bill, I knew he’d introduced that ‘citizenship’ amendment. Sometimes you’ve got to call their bluff, like he said. You play along with them, in the game — up to a point.”
Details of the complex 2013 immigration fight tumbled forth as Gantt defended Cruz. Randy Martin, also 60 and standing in line, overheard something about Fox News’s coverage of the Cruz-Rubio argument, and joined in.
“The one clip they’re not playing is the tape in 2010 of Rubio saying he wouldn’t back amnesty,” said Martin.
“Good point,” said Gantt. “Look, when I saw [Sen. Jeff] Sessions back him up, I knew Cruz was in the right.”
Days of political attacks from Rubio on Cruz’s immigration record had backfired with both men — neither of whom were fully committed to Cruz. Many here in a crowd of more than 1,300 said that Rubio had lost them by criticizing Cruz, and most could cite the conservative sources they used to assuage their doubts: Fox News, the Drudge Report, Breitbart News, Cruz’s own Facebook page.
If Donald Trump’s rise has been aided by low-information voters, Cruz is gaining with certain-information voters. They consume different media and admire different heroes than the press that writes gaffe-of-the-day stories or lists of winners and losers. And they are seen as more likely to vote in the defining early contests, especially in the Bible Belt-centered March 1 primaries.
“This is an extraordinary change in politics,” said Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager. “It’s not just what conservative voters get from the evening news, or Fox, or the newspapers, or talk radio. It’s what they get minute by minute from a conglomerate of conservative news sites.”
As Cruz continues his 12-stop march through early primary states, he’s happily violating one of the great political cliches: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Often credited to Ronald Reagan, it posits that any argument over a candidate’s record will be won by the person making the argument. Rubio’s campaign has boasted, on the record to Politico, that it will portray Cruz as an opportunist who positions himself wherever he expects the conservative base to be come Election Day.
The spat over the 2013 immigration bill was the moment Rubio had been waiting for. At the debate, and at subsequent news conferences, Cruz insisted he had “always” opposed any legalization of immigrants who had broken the law to reach the United States. Rubio’s team was ready with video of Cruz appearing to say otherwise, as he told interviewers in 2013 that he had introduced a bill barring legalization in order to make the bill passable. Rubio’s campaign was one of several celebrating when Fox News host Bret Baier seemed to rattle the Texan by playing an old quote.
“B-b-b-bret,” said Cruz, “of course I wanted the bill to pass — my amendment to pass.”
From the outside, it might have looked like the Cruz brand was damaged, but his campaign saw no evidence of that. The fight over the immigration bill — co-sponsored by Rubio as a member of the Gang of Eight that crafted it — was not obscure to conservative voters. Cruz’s lawyerly strike against it was not seen as slippery; it was seen as smart. In Alabama, voters could rattle off the details of the bill, as well as their problems with the end-of-year omnibus Cruz had just voted against. They knew Washington enough not to trust it.
“Here’s the difference between Rubio and Cruz,” said Russ Stringer, 51, as the event opened. “One of them was in the Gang of Eight. One of them wasn’t. Got it?”
At two stops in Alabama — in an exurb of Mobile and in this exurb of Birmingham — Cruz delivered a stump speech that lasted between 25 and 30 minutes and focused on big promises of what he could achieve in just one day of the presidency over the finer points of C-Span warfare. Some of his jokes had stayed in despite some weathering and rust, like the one about every IRS agent being reassigned to the border, or the Democratic primary coming down to a “wild-eyed socialist with dangerous ideas on foreign policy — and Bernie Sanders.”
But he also treated his audiences to unusually long, substantive introductions about the Senate’s workings and video tributes from people who might be obscure outside the conservative movement. A strip that now plays before every stop features Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; Paul Pressler, a conservative who helped turn the Southern Baptist Convention to the right; and Brent Bozell, the founder of multiple Virginia-based conservative groups.
They’re echoed in audio clips of Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh, multiplatform stars who reach millions of conservatives. Each of them, to the delight of the Cruz campaign, had taken his side in the immigration tete-a-tete. Anyone who pays attention to them had heard them enforce the campaign’s message.
“When all of this is over — I mean, the argument’s over, when all the points have been made — there’s still a picture,” Limbaugh said last week. “It’s Chuck Schumer and the Gang of Eight with Marco Rubio in the picture, and nowhere is Ted Cruz.”
“Rubio blunders by highlighting immigration,” Levin wrote on Facebook on Monday. “His disastrous Gang of Eight role puts him at complete odds with Cruz & firmly in Schumer’s camp.”
If anyone walking into the rallies still doubted Cruz, they got passionate lectures about his rightness. On Saturday, the duty went to Sessions, the Republican Alabama senator. He insisted that Cruz killed the Gang of Eight bill; Cruz, half-jokingly, said he would make the senator his homeland security secretary. At Sunday’s Trussville rally, the crowd heard from Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who described what might have been lost had the bill passed the House.
“We’ve seen some news coverage lately that besmirches the good name of Senator Ted Cruz,” said Brooks. “I want you to know that I was proud to stand with Senator Ted Cruz as he led the fight in the Senate.”
In the crowd, there were only two reads on this argument. One was that Cruz was telling the truth because he had earned that trust. The other was that Cruz was probably telling the truth and a quick check confirmed it.
“I was so disappointed that Rubio said that,” said Marilyn Cooke, 52. “I like Marco Rubio, except for that one thing. He’s knowledgeable. He’s on top of things. He’s just too soft on immigration.”
Cliff Sims, the founder of Alabama’s conservative Yellowhammer News, was not surprised by any of the Cruz defenders. Before stepping onstage to introduce the senator, he explained that the sort of people crowding into the civic center had already vetted and accepted Cruz’s story of 2013. To them, he had been a clever politician and a clever lawyer, and the reports that made him sound “pro-amnesty” were ripped out of context from his campaign to discredit the bill.
“You’ve got a situation, not just in Alabama but all over the country, where people curate their news consumption to affirm their worldview,” Sims said. “Inside of that world, brand really matters. It almost doesn’t matter how much a politician spends in advertising if his brand is bad. Take Jeb Bush — I sincerely believe there is not enough money on the planet Earth that Jeb Bush could spend it in Alabama and win.”
Sessions, who has not officially endorsed any candidate, was a crucial player in all of this. The conservative voters in attendance who favored Cruz despised most everything about Washington. They were also judicious; they would reward a politician who got it right. Again and again, they cited the good word of Sessions as proof that Cruz clearly had defended their values. On the one hand was the Rubio campaign; on the other was the America-first senator who attacked the Gang of Eight whenever a microphone appeared in front of him. No contest.
“I don’t know what part of Sun Tzu they’re focusing on,” Roe said. “The flippin’ gold standard of immigration is Jeff Sessions. For them to attack on this, when they know Ted’s heading to Alabama? He’s making our people more passionate on this every day.”
The counterattack had worked so well, in fact, that by the weekend Cruz was no longer being asked much about immigration or Rubio. The subject did not come up in two news conferences, in Mobile, Ala., or Savannah, Ga. When it did come up here in Trussville, the question was about why Cruz had backed an expansion of the high-skilled H-1B visa program, popular with business groups, until the abrupt November announcement that he would halt all such visas. He answered with a name that Alabama trusted.
“Listen, I support the H-1B program, as originally designed,” said Cruz. “It’s the reason I’ve joined with Senator Jeff Sessions, from here in Alabama, to introduce legislation reforming the H-1B program.”