So Cruz 2016 is really a thing, huh? As a great man once said, “Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.”

You can, if you like, dismiss the Cruz boomlet as little more than a couple of well-received speaking engagements at social-conservative forums, but that’s Santorum’s bread and butter too and he did okay in the caucuses last time.

There are no polls showing Ted Cruz leading the 2016 Republican presidential field in the Iowa. A PPP survey last month found Cruz in sixth place in the state, behind Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio. But after a particularly well-received appearance at a conservative event in Ames, Iowa over the weekend, there seems little doubt that Cruz, who has been in the U.S. Senate all of eight months, is zooming toward the front of the GOP pack in the nation’s first-voting state…

“Although they both received a warm reception from the Christian conservative audience, Cruz clearly bested Santorum in terms of enthusiasm, excitement, and anticipation of a 2016 presidential run,” said Jamie Johnson, a GOP state committeeman and a strong Santorum backer in 2012.

“While [Santorum] delivered a good speech, he was upstaged by Cruz, who from everything I’ve seen has become the great conservative hope for Iowa conservatives,” said Craig Robinson, founder and editor of the influential Iowa Republican blog. “You could sense the crowd’s anticipation before Cruz spoke. The energy in the room as he spoke was unmatched by any other speaker that day.”

The last time Cruz was there, in late July, Byron York wondered if the simmering Cruzmania he sensed was in part a function of conservative dissatisfaction with the field. Any anecdotal evidence to support that theory? Perhaps:

Bob Vander Plaats, a top evangelical leader in Iowa, says that Marco Rubio’s decision to team up with moderates and liberals on immigration reform has likely hurt him in the Hawkeye State.

Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, which is sponsoring a political summit in Iowa today, explains that Rubio should have stayed apart from the Gang in the Senate and simply proposed his own legislation on immigration reform. “He’s on stage with [Chuck] Schumer, [John] McCain,” he says of what he thinks conservatives who championed Rubio against Charlie Crist are thinking. “It’s kind of like you can measure somebody by who they associate themselves with.”

Some in Iowa, he adds, are saying, “’2016’s out for Rubio, there’s no way.’”

Rubio’s doing his best to pander his way back into the hearts of social cons and fiscal cons, but if Cruz stays popular in Iowa, it’ll present him with a dilemma: Should he continue to tack hard right to atone for helping to sell immigration reform or should he actually tack towards the center and try to win in 2016 that way? Iowa’s going to be crowded on the right. You’ll have Cruz as the tea-party champion, Rand Paul as the great libertarian hope with a built-in base of his father’s supporters, and Santorum winning some not insignificant chunk of social conservatives. What’s left for Rubio in that? Better that he run towards the middle, where he might have the centrist vote more or less to himself (depending upon what Christie does, of course). Romney nearly won the caucuses that way last year, and after backing two guys in Huckabee and Santorum who didn’t win a major primary after winning the caucuses, Iowans who are on the fence might vote strategically for a guy who looks like he can go all the way. If they back another loser this time, the stories about how Iowa doesn’t matter much anymore will be even worse in 2020. And maybe that’ll push the RNC (and DNC) to finally revisit Iowa’s first-in-the-nation honors.

All of that’s good news for Cruz too, though. It’s easy to see him winning South Carolina if he wins in Iowa, so conservative caucusgoers could back him in confidence that they’re not wasting their vote. Paul is iffier on that count, and Santorum is really iffy. I think he’s more likely to play spoiler next time by drawing votes from some social-con rival like Cruz than he is to win. Yet another reason for Rubio to consider a run to the middle.

Exit question: We’re not really going to have to deal with Ted Cruz Birthers in 2016, are we? C’mon.