To walk into Ted Cruz's holding room at the National Religious Liberties Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, on Friday afternoon was to walk into quite the group of happy campers.
With a friendly motion and a quick smile, the Republican Senator from Texas, looking relaxed in short sleeves, his foot up on the coffee table, waves you over to the chair beside him. It's just the tiniest bit unnerving, the notion flashes across your mind, "He knows I'm with NPR, right?"
Yes, everyone knows who you are, and in spite of Cruz's brilliantly recalled denunciations of the liberal media during CNBC's debate, they're just fine with it. This is a political campaign brimming with confidence and a strong sense of momentum. Nobody here's afraid of little ol' me.
During a wide-ranging interview, the freshman senator laid out his vision for America and his presidency if elected:
And it almost goes without saying, Obamacare would be consigned to the dustbin.
Cruz's strategy for winning the Republican nomination is sophisticated in its patience and cunning.
Like a football coach intimately familiar with his team's strengths and the other teams' weaknesses, Cruz has been spending his time and money building campaign infrastructure throughout the South and Midwest. That's playing to your strength. Publicly, he stays on message and doesn't attack other Republican candidates. And don't panic, don't always be reacting to what the other guys (and gal) are doing.
Did a New York billionaire unexpectedly jump into the lead? Let the political pundits sneer and joke about the supposedly hapless Cruz picking up Donald Trump's crumbs. The young senator has never felt any threat from the bombastic developer and being friendly to the new guy is smart politics.
Has the quiet doctor suddenly caught the conservative fancy? Not a problem, Cruz defends him from the liberal sharks that are closing in to tear the good doctor apart. You won't hear the Texas senator say a word about grain-filled Egyptian pyramids, scholarship offers from West Point or knife-points and friend's belt buckles, why should he? He's amused that this go-round, it's the Republican moderates at each other's throats, Jeb and Marco can have at it, let The Donald referee.
Meanwhile, Cruz has quietly amassed a campaign war chest that's second to none. Three separate Cruz superPACS with tens of millions more waiting in reserve to attack when the time comes, and it's not just Texas billionaires like technology mogul Darwin Deason, although he has them, too. Cruz takes in millions from a grass roots network of Tea Party and other insurgent Republicans in small amounts. Not unlike another freshman Senator who ran and won on a wave of Internet-driven contributions.
To switch sports metaphors from football to track, Ted Cruz reports he's just fine running in 4th or 5th place after the first lap around the track. He's trained well, feels strong and looks good, there's plenty left in the bank as it were. The two guys ahead of him appear to be straining just a bit, already. With three more laps to go, the son of a Cuban immigrant looks hungry and sharp, waiting.
On Friday night, after his speech to the National Religious Liberties Conference in Des Moines, I was surprised to see Cruz and his staff boarding the same small regional jet back to Dallas as me. Didn't he have a private plane, I thought the Koch brothers took care of this stuff? I'd planned to write about our interview and the day on the flight back, but as we took our seats, I was dumbfounded to see Cruz and I were seated across the aisle from one another in coach. I jokingly asked if he wanted to edit the piece as I wrote it next to him and the talented orator and Supreme Court lawyer said he'd be happy to.
I bagged it. I knew the senator wouldn't look over my shoulder, but it was just too inhibiting, and anyway, I was tired. It was late, we'd been delayed and as we taxied to takeoff, I leaned back and closed my eyes. Next to me, I could hear Cruz and the soldier he'd been seated next to, a private in battle fatigues, quietly talking Texas football.