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Cruz Firms Up Stance on Controversial Iowa Issue

Pocahontas, Iowa -- After a flurry of pushback by Iowa farmers and negative ads directed his way, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz shored up his position this week on a key agricultural issue in the state, falling closer in line to the desires of Iowa farmers.

Cruz told roomfuls of Iowans at stops along his six-day statewide bus tour that he opposes the immediate elimination of the Renewable Fuel Standard, a law the agricultural industry views as crucial to the state's economy. The law requires the U.S. fuel supply to use a certain amount of corn ethanol - one of Iowa's foremost crops.

Cruz had avoided laying down any specific benchmark in recent months, leaving farmers and a key pro-ethanol group pessimistic about Cruz's position.

In early December, Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler said the campaign won't commit to a timeline. Now the campaign points to Cruz's introduction of legislation in 2014 that included a phase-out of the standard over five years - not an immediate elimination.

And for months on the trail, Cruz stayed vague and has only said at campaign stops that "Washington should not pick winners and losers" and should eliminate mandates and subsidies for all sources of energy.

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Derek Eadon, who helped start the pro-ethanol group America's Renewable Future, told NBC News that the group welcomes Cruz's new position despite a lack of communication or clarity by Cruz over the last year.

"When he sees people puling up at town halls, they're now trying to play damage control," Eadon said. "It's obviously positive. It's positive that he's talking about ethanol and it shows that the issue resonates. We'd like to hear more from him."

Yet despite the clarifications, the campaign against Cruz and farmers' concerns persist.

"I got one of these," said Richard Marshall, a corn farmer from Alta, at an event later that night, holding up a flier from the group from the pro-ethanol group. "Cruz has the bad rating - him and Rand Paul."

Marshall - skeptical since the summer of the candidate's position - attended the Storm Lake campaign stop with the hope Cruz would clarify where he stands.

Cruz explained his support for his five-year phase out in addition to eliminating the EPA-regulated blend that does not allow for fuel blends to include more than 10 or 15 percent of ethanol blend.

"He was sincere in his statements, and he said the right thing," Marshall said after the event. "I'm probably more likely to vote for him now that he clarified his position."

But the campaign also said on Wednesday that Cruz would not support the extension of the standard after it expires in 2022 if subsidies for other energy sources are not eliminated.

"This is a farm community," said Myron Pingle, a 76-year-old corn farmer in Cherokee, Iowa, where seven ethanol plants operate within 50 miles of the town. "I'm not committed to vote for [Cruz] because of it. When he wants to take the bread and butter off my plate, off my table, then I get pretty defensive."

Concerned about Cruz's stance, Pingle, his wife and friend traveled into town, like many others at Cruz events this week, to hear Cruz speak at a local restaurant on Tuesday.

Cruz was asked by the public about his position at his last eight campaign stops.

Last month, America's Renewable Future, a group launched in January by Iowa's longtime Republican Gov. Terry Branstad's son, Eric Branstad, and Democratic strategist Derek Eadon, launched a $100,000 radio ad buy on talk radio news stations across the state.

The narrator in the ad says Cruz is like other politicians who "support subsidies for big oil but want to end support for ethanol." The ad continues, asserting Cruz's position will "threaten rural Iowa and thousands of jobs."

The group also dispersed fliers this week calling Cruz "dangerous to Iowa farmers."

A majority of the other GOP candidates, including Marco Rubio, oppose ending the RFS before its current expiration in 2022.

Rep. Steve King of rural, conservative northwest Iowa - despite being a staunch defender of the RFS - was named the national co-chair of Cruz's campaign just this week.

"The RFS is the Holy Grail," King told NBC News late Wednesday night. "I said [to Cruz], 'It's pretty much an insurmountable political obstacle if you're going to want to be embraced by the renewable fuels industry in Iowa.'"

King said he has long worked with Cruz on the issue and suggests the plan the Texas senator is proposing would provide farmers a path ahead - though he notably said he would ultimately reject it: "If it comes to a vote in the Congress when Ted Cruz is president, I'm going to support the RFS."

With just over three weeks until the Iowa caucus, it's now a question of whether the perception of Cruz's position has changed among Iowa farmers.

Early Thursday morning outside of the hotel where the Cruz campaign stayed overnight, Tyler, the campaign's communications director, walked over to the America's Renewable Future trailer sitting in the parking lot, wiped some dirt off the back of the vehicle and gently placed a Cruz bumper sticker on it.

"No hard feelings," Tyler told reporters. "They've come around to our position. So we're all good. Pro-ethanol all the way."