On the stump in Iowa, Cruz packs in the crowds with a conservative message

Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, leaves a meeting on Capitol Hill on March 10.  CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Nikki Kahn)

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Sen. Ted Cruz, pacing as he always does when making a stump speech, looked out on a room packed with people and made note of the furniture.

“The reason I’m optimistic is because we ran out of chairs,” Cruz, R-Texas, said to the crowd at the Longbranch Hotel, some in straight-backed chairs, others massed in the back.

It’s a line Cruz would use more than once on his first trip to Iowa as a declared presidential candidate, underscoring his status as an emerging top-tier contender in the crowded 2016 race.

On a two-day, five-stop swing that took him from Sioux City to Dubuque County, Cruz was greeted by enthusiastic crowds packed into stuffy auditoriums and large ballrooms. Sporting a wireless microphone, he has honed his primary pitch to voters — it involves a lot of gesticulating — and looks more comfortable on the trail than before. He chuckles after his own jokes, and a self-satisfied smile came each time the crowd applauded or shouted “Amen” after he called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act or the Common Core education standards.

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Cruz is the first major presidential contender to announce his candidacy, and he is having a moment. He has broken into the top tier of candidates, according to recent polls — including a Washington Post-ABC News survey this week showing him trailing only Jeb Bush among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents.

Cruz is also surprising many with his ability to raise money, pulling in $4 million during the first eight days of his campaign. The majority of the contributions came from small-dollar donations, while 300 donors maxed out on their contributions.

This weekend, the campaign purchased television advertising time nationally on Fox News during “Killing Jesus,” a documentary-style adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s book, and statewide in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina during NBC’s “A.D.: The Bible Continues” on Easter Sunday.

“We’re trying to lock in those gains now and communicate about the message,” a Cruz adviser said.

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Cruz’s ad, which speaks of the “transformative love of Jesus Christ,” illustrates his campaign’s focus on courting voters who are motivated by faith, including evangelicals here in Iowa, Catholics in New Hampshire and Southern Baptists in South Carolina. He calls for a “grass-roots army” of conservatives to support him and talks about broadening his appeal to libertarians and “Reagan Democrats.”

Cruz spent a good deal of time on the trail talking about religious freedom, praising a law passed in Indiana aimed at shielding businesses from having to participate in same-sex weddings.

“I’m sorry to say it has not been a profile in courage seeing some of the leaders running and scurrying” to change the legislation, he said. “Defending religious liberty is not a fringe view, it is a basic American value.”

Cruz is making defending things, from the Constitution to values, a centerpiece of his campaign, casting himself as a solitary figure who relishes fighting and leading in a way other likely challengers do not.

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“How many of those issues have those individuals stood up and led?” Cruz said in Sioux City when asked how he will show he has enough executive experience to be president. “For most of them you can find one issue, maybe two.”

At the same time, Cruz has been loath to hit at other prospective candidates by name, calling them friends or people he respects. He did poke Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for voting not to overhaul a surveillance program that collects bulk records of phone calls.

He has also emphasized his hawkish views on foreign policy, castigating the framework for an Iranian nuclear deal reached this week and vowing to root out Islamic extremism.

Cruz’s appearances often have the feel of a revival meeting, and they seemed more upbeat than usual this week, with crowds yelling “yes,” “that’s right” and “Amen” after he made a point. In Des Moines, a man in a shirt with American flags printed on it loudly praised Cruz after he said he bucked George W. Bush on an issue, and others guffawed when he talked about his precocious daughter or took a dig at Vice President Joe Biden.

Cruz’s wife, Heidi, was just as popular as her husband. Throngs of voters lined up to meet her after Cruz’s speeches, asking her to pose for photos or sign books.

Many in the crowds said they were coming to check out Cruz because they like him and are intrigued by his staunch conservatism. Others said they have already made up their minds to support him.

Many also asked pointed questions, including two people at different locations who asked Cruz how he would handle undocumented immigrants who remain in the country. Cruz, who decries President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration reform as “illegal amnesty,” said the answer is to first secure the border then “have a discussion” about what to do with people who remain.

Bob Eft of Waterloo said he likes what Cruz had to say but is concerned that he’s not going to raise enough money to stay in the race. A man standing next to him chimed in.

“I think he’s real. I really do,” said Danny Michael, also of Waterloo. “You know why? Because the other guys hate him.”

Adam Vandall, 34, said he is fully behind Cruz’s campaign and has never supported a candidate this early in the process.

Motioning to a packed ballroom at a Holiday Inn next to the Des Moines airport, Vandall asked, “How many presidential candidates 10, 11 months out from the caucus have this big of a crowd?”