Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican and Tea-Party darling, was in Iowa Friday headlining a fundraising dinner for the state Republican Party. It was Cruz's third visit to Iowa in as many months, but this time was different.
It was his first time back since the government shutdown and his 21-hour, anti-Obamacare talkathon that preceded it — events that catapulted him from junior senator to a conservative hero and household name.
Iowa, of course, is the state that kicks off the presidential contest every four years with its first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Cruz is often discussed as a potential candidate in 2016, so it's no surprise he got a standing ovation as he was introduced to the crowd of 600 Iowa Republicans who gathered for the state party's annual Reagan Dinner.
Perhaps more surprising, the clapping only lasted 40 seconds, and the reception was more polite than electric. A week ago, Cruz got an eight-minute standing ovation upon his return to Texas.
Bucking The Party While Calling For Unity
In Des Moines on Friday, Cruz started by talking about his very long speech on the Senate floor.
"Twenty-one hours is a long time," he said. "I mean, that's almost as long as it takes to sign up on the Obamacare website."
It's not hard to find Republicans willing to openly criticize Cruz and his effort to defund the health care law. It was destined to fail, they say, a huge mistake that tanked Republican popularity and could have long-term consequences for the party.
In his speech, Cruz blamed his fellow Republican senators for the failure, but then turned his remarks to the need for unity.
"We need to come together, and let me tell you, growth and freedom are principles and ideals that unify the entire Republican Party," he said.
This is exactly what Betsy Sigler came to hear. Sigler is a pediatrician and mother of three, and says she would have kept that standing ovation going a whole lot longer if she had her way.
"I love Ted Cruz," she says. "We're smarter than what the media's trying to play us for. Nobody's divided. We all want freedom, we all want liberty and we want our rules followed. I think we're ready to stand together and fight for that."
But What's Cruz Really Doing In Iowa?
After the event, Cruz talked with reporters, and was asked the obvious question for politicians with possible presidential aspirations: What are you doing in Iowa? Cruz's answer: He was invited.
Asked more bluntly as he was leaving whether he was laying the groundwork for a potential presidential run, Cruz looked at the reporter and just kept walking.
Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, thinks the answer is clear.
"Nobody comes to Iowa for the weather," Goldford says. "Now we have pretty good food, and Iowans are very nice people, but you're always suspicious when potential presidential candidates show up in the state of Iowa."
It may be too early to admit presidential ambitions, but it isn't too early to visit, says John Stineman, a public affairs consultant with deep roots in Iowa Republican politics.
"Any candidate will come during the '14 (election) cycle to help raise money, and that's how they start to plant seeds," Stineman says. "So, he's doing all the things that a prospective candidate does."
Cruz encouraged everyone in Friday's audience to get out their cell phones and text their support, building a database of supporters and potential donors that could come in handy if he decides to run for president in 2016.
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