Iowa is shaping up to be a two-man GOP race. And one suddenly has a limp.

Donald Trump on Friday wasted little time kicking a bruised Ted Cruz, his closest rival in Monday’s Iowa caucuses who took the brunt of the Republican field’s attacks after the real estate mogul bowed out of the prior night’s Fox debate…

“I think we’re going to do really well in Iowa. We’re leading in the Iowa polls. And Cruz is in the second place. He got really pummeled last night. I’m glad I wasn’t there. And they didn’t even mention that he was born in Canada,” Trump said. “So he got beaten pretty badly last night. And I don’t know what’s going to happen to him.”

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GOP strategist Bob Haus, who ran Rick Perry’s two Iowa campaigns and is a frequent Trump critic, is among the plugged-in Republicans here who senses that Cruz is heading in the wrong direction at the worst possible time

Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Iowa Christian conservative leader who has endorsed Cruz and sparred with Trump publicly, predicted that turnout on Monday would be somewhere in the 135,000 to 150,000 range…

That could mean bad news for Cruz, whose path to victory in Iowa has always been through a more traditional turnout that would favor his base of evangelical, longtime caucus-goers, who are highly engaged in the somewhat laborious process.

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“Ted is likable,” Heidi Cruz, the candidate’s wife of 14 years, assured a modest crowd in Ringsted, a snow-encrusted hamlet in rural northwest Iowa. “This is a person who is incredibly fantastic and fun to be around.”

These are traits you’re supposed to show, not tell. On the other hand, Cruz’s rivals have spent millions driving a different narrative, one meant to deny him a critical victory in the first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 1. “Nobody likes him,” GOP frontunner Donald Trump sneers. Former Iowa caucus champs Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are running ads questioning Cruz’s social conservative bona fides. Rand Paul is casting him as a calculating operator masquerading as a conservative purist…

Out on the trail, the mojo is gone. Cruz spent much of Friday dropping in on remote villages in rural northwest Iowa, home to few caucus-goers and even fewer undecided voters. He began the day in Ringsted, a hamlet of 409 near the Minnesota border, where he had to fend off questions about his controversial ethanol position in a bar with cinder-block walls and Chivas Regal on tap.

At his next stop in Fenton, pop. 279, a van plastered with “Ted Cruz Can’t Be Trusted” parked outside his retail stop in a local restaurant. Cruz campaigns gamely, offering selfies for grandparents and fist-bumps for gradeschoolers. While supportive, his crowds were modest and restrained, more befitting a summer flirtation than a surging favorite.

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“It’s kind of hard to decide between Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee,” said David Jensen, a part-time farmer in Ringsted, Iowa, adding he “prefers” Carson because he can appeal to people for not being a politician. He suggested Cruz, though, is viewed by many as “divisive.”

Jensen continued, “But a lot of my friends say they don’t think Ben Carson can win. So they say we should vote for Cruz because he has a better chance of beating Trump. But people also say you can’t listen to the polls because they don’t know exactly what’s going on.”…

[Louie Gohmert] seemingly acknowledged the significance of a potential Iowa loss to the campaign.

“So many are saying if Ted Cruz doesn’t win the Iowa caucuses, it’s a done deal,” Gohmert said.

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Even before Thursday night’s Fox News debate, there was talk that Cruz might have “peaked too early” in Iowa. Cruz narrowly led the Donald in the typically very accurate and influential Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll released on January 13. But since then the polling has shown slippage for Cruz, generally attributed to a combo attack from Trump on Cruz’s Canadian birth and from the Branstad family (Terry, the six-term governor, and son Eric, the ethanol lobbyist) on his opposition to special treatment of the corn-based alternative fuel by the federal government. Even more ominously, third-place candidate Marco Rubio, the favorite of both the Republican Establishment and of many conservative Evangelical leaders, was beginning to creep up on Cruz in Iowa polls amid a major spending spree on TV ads by the Floridian.

Then came Thursday night’s debates, where Cruz was almost universally deemed the worst performer and perhaps (depending on your assessment of the impact of Trump’s absence) the big loser. Two particularly damaging moments were his trapped look when confronted with videos of his past statements seeming to support legalization of undocumented immigrants, and a shot of Terry Branstad chortling as Cruz struggled to explain his position on ethanol. And it didn’t help the nerves of Team Cruz that Frank Luntz’s post-debate focus-group report for Fox News was practically a Rubio rally…

If Cruz wins, the debate stumble will be forgotten instantly. If he finishes second, and particularly a weak second, chins will be stroked and lost opportunities will be weighed. And if he somehow finishes behind Rubio, his candidacy is in very big trouble. Any way you look at it, it’s been a long, strange trip for a freshman U.S. senator who would finish dead last in a poll of his colleagues.

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Consistency is one of Cruz’s best attributes, but it may be another hitch for him as far as ethanol is concerned. Iowa’s Republican governor Terry Branstad and the state’s ethanol lobby have been working overtime to sink Cruz for his stance that the Renewable Fuel Standard, which provides federal subsidies to corn farmers in Iowa and elsewhere, should be phased out. A pro-RFS group called America’s Renewable Future is following the Cruz campaign bus around Iowa in an RV emblazoned with the phrase “You Cruz, You Lose.” The group is also running TV and radio ads.

The effect of the pro-ethanol campaign is that for weeks, Cruz has been honing his response. He’s asked about the issue at every stop, and uncorks a succinct explanation of his position that boils down to this: no energy producers should receive taxpayer-funded subsidies, ethanol or not. In Fenton, a young woman tested him on this. “Are you willing to help the ethanol companies, or the oil companies?” she asked…

Cruz seems almost to go out of his way to dispel the notion that he’s somehow against Iowa corn farmers. Earlier in the week Dave Vander Griend, a pioneer in the ethanol energy industry, joined Cruz on the stump in support, a fact Cruz mentioned at all three of his Friday stops. Cruz spent five minutes in Emmetsburg expanding on his view that he would “tear down” the federal government’s ethanol “blend wall,” which limits the amount of ethanol that can be mixed with gasoline. “I very much support ethanol,” he said. “I just oppose Washington.”

His engagement on the question suggests the attack ads from Branstad and his allies are working. Cruz advisors say the focus is actually a blessing in disguise, since it allows the senator the opportunity to explain why his position is good for corn farmers.

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Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) thinks Ted Cruz has faded in his state and may falter more after a “poor performance” in Thursday night’s final debate before the caucuses

Branstad, who announced last week that he wants Cruz to lose his state’s kick-off contest over his opposition to the Renewable Fuel Standard, was in the audience and recalled how the Texas senator got booed when he clashed with the moderators. “It was a poor performance on his part,” Branstad said, twisting the knife. “Some of the other candidates came across a lot better. … Renewable energy is very important to our state. A lot of jobs are at stake. … His stand on that issue is definitely going to hurt him. We’ve seen in recent polls he was ahead, but now he’s dropped behind Trump.”…

Branstad, who is officially neutral, forecasts record turnout on Monday night, citing the large crowds that Donald Trump draws to his events.

“Trump had 1,700 people in Ottumwa,” said Branstad, in an interview conducted by reporters from The Washington Post and Politico. “I didn’t know there were 1,700 Republicans in Ottumwa! That’s a huge turnout.”

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Marco Rubio said Ted Cruz has made him the target of new negative ads because he considers Rubio a threat, even while the Florida senator continued to downplay expectations for his own caucus night showing…

“Obviously they must be concerned about something,” Rubio told reporters. “You don’t spend money attacking a candidate if you’re not concerned about them.”…

It’s an argument that resonates with Bruce Martin, a 61-year-old pastor and Muscatine resident, who said he wants someone who can win.

“In a way I think Rubio’s much more electable than Cruz,” Martin said. “He’s been appealing across the board to a greater number of people. Cruz is pulling us too far one way and Trump is just inflammatory. The two of them cannot be our Republican nominee. That would be disastrous.”

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“If you want to know if you can trust someone, you have to look at their walk,” Cruz told a gathering at a bar and grill in this town of 400. “If you’re tired of getting burned with politicians who claim to be against amnesty and campaign against amnesty, then go to Washington and join the Democrats who support amnesty.”

He continued, with another not-so-subtle shot at Rubio: “How many times have we heard them say they support marriage, and yet they go to Washington, and they say we should do nothing about the Supreme Court’s marriage laws. The stakes are too high to get burned again.”

The references to the Florida senator weren’t all veiled. He called him out by name. “If you look, in particular, at President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty, Marco Rubio’s gone on Univision and said, ‘No, no, no. I wouldn’t rescind amnesty.’”

“Why the American people are so volcanically frustrated,” Cruz said, “is because the people who say they are on our team are fighting for the other guys.”

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No one interviewed by The Hill is predicting that Rubio will catch Trump on Election Day, and most still believe that Cruz will finish ahead of him.

However, if a late surge by Rubio can propel him close to Trump and Cruz into that first tier of candidates, some believe it could enough to cement his standing in the minds of mainstream Republicans that he’s the best hope to take on the insurgents.

“In the last seven days or so, I’ve seen movement towards Rubio and away from Cruz among conservatives that are not comfortable yet with the idea of Trump,” said Jamie Johnson, a long-time GOP operative in the state who worked on Rick Perry’s campaign this cycle…

“I think he’s going to surge enough to worry Ted Cruz’s supporters,” Johnson said. “Conservatives that are worried about Trump getting the nomination are going to put the bat in Rubio’s hands here so he can go swing it in New Hampshire.”

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So many Republicans fear and loath Ted Cruz, a third place win by Marco, particularly if he is close to second place, is going to fuel front page stories in newspapers across America on Tuesday and lead stories on the nightly news about Marco’s come from behind victory.

The reality is that Rubio could go to second place behind Ted Cruz. Given the poor state of the Trump campaign’s ground operation, Cruz may very well come in first with Rubio second. If that happens, Marco Rubio, not Ted Cruz, will be heralded as the Trump slayer. Frankly, I fully expect a Cruz first place finish with a Rubio second place finish…

To overcome this, Cruz is going to have to win big in Iowa. Cruz himself has already said that this may be the last place to stop Trump. Those words will be used against him if he comes in second to Trump and ignored if he comes in first. That is the reality the Cruz camp understands and it is one reason they have ads up all over Iowa attacking Rubio while the Cruz Super PACs continue relentlessly pounding Trump with Trump’s own words.

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Despite such headwinds, the Cruz campaign — modeling itself as a conservative version of President Obama’s ground operation — said Friday it remains serenely confident that two things will carry him across the finish line here: superior organization and analytics

The operation of the senator from Texas thinks that it has come down to fighting over exactly 9,131 voters who are trying to decide between Cruz and Trump: 3,185 who are torn between him and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; and a smaller group — 2,807, to be precise — who have not yet made their choice between him and Rubio. Cruz also must try to peel off supporters of other religious conservatives in the race, including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

“It’s very primal, frankly,” Roe said, when asked how he could be so confident of that data. “It’s not like kernels in the jar at the state fair. These are people who have told us this. . . . The numbers aren’t wrong, because we’ve been testing them.”

Roe also predicted that turnout will exceed the record for a Republican caucus day, which is 122,000 in Iowa. What he doesn’t know, Roe said, is by how much. He conceded that the higher it goes, the better it will bode for Trump, who is counting on a surge of voters who have not traditionally made the effort to attend the caucuses, an exercise that requires devoting most of a frigid weeknight.

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Christian Values

I want to thank evangelical Christians for the warm embrace I've received on the campaign trail. I will not let you down! #MakeAmericaGreatAgain

Posted by Donald J. Trump on Saturday, January 30, 2016