A month or two ago, Marco Rubio became the hot, in-the-know pick to win the Republican presidential nomination. This week, it's Ted Cruz's turn to graduate from also-ran to leading contender in the collective judgment of the news media. He seems to be rising in the Iowa polls, apparently at the expense of Ben Carson, and a number of analysts have started to take him seriously as a potential nominee (see Jamelle Bouie in Slate, Paul Waldman in the Washington Post, Rich Lowry of the National Review in Politico, and Andrew Romano at Yahoo News). As I explained last week, Cruz probably needs a strong Iowa performance in order to have a shot at the nomination, which makes his rise in Iowa particularly welcome news for his presidential ambitions.
These analyses do a good job of cataloguing Cruz's various political and organizational strengths. One of his most formidable assets in a riled-up Republican Party is a well-cultivated reputation as the purest of the pure conservatives. Most of Cruz's energy since landing in Washington has been devoted to creating rhetorical and procedural mayhem, incessantly charging the leadership of his own party with ideological infidelity and political cowardice in the face of the Obama-led Democrats.
For Cruz's rivals, his current bump in the polls presents an unusual challenge. Some Republican elites, and undoubtedly most of the party's strategists and consultants, view Cruz as too conservative or too divisive to win a general election, but many other Republicans deny the existence of a tradeoff between ideological purity and electability. (After all, didn't conservative hero Ronald Reagan win two national landslides?) The most common go-to move in Republican nomination politics is to attack your opponent for being insufficiently, not excessively, loyal to the conservative cause. But that's a difficult charge to make stick in this case, given Cruz's persona and record in office.
This Politico article about an anti-Cruz ad run by a 501(c)4 aligned with Rubio suggests that Cruz's opponents may try anyway. The Rubio backer funding the ad campaign, a man named Sean Noble, explains to reporters that he views Cruz as unelectable, presumably because of Cruz's hard-line, confrontational style of politics. But this argument is not contained in the ad itself, which instead attacks Cruz for voting to restrict bulk data collection by the NSA and therefore "leading from behind" in the war on terror à la the hated Barack Obama. In today's Republican Party, apparently, even Ted Cruz will be forced to answer to the charge that he is just not conservative enough.