RINGSTED, Iowa -- Ted Cruz changed his campaign tune on Friday, opting to not attack Donald Trump – a shift for Cruz after two weeks of publicly chipping away at the frontrunner’s record.
Instead, the Texas senator delivered stump speeches that mimicked those he delivered through the fall and early part of winter and led him to the top of Iowa polling last month, honing in on a message of “hope and optimism” and focusing almost solely on his own record and policy proposals.
A Cruz campaign aide told NBC News on Friday that Cruz will continue to focus on “driving home” the message of who he is before the caucus on Monday.
It’s a reversal from the previous two weeks, when Cruz rattled off 17 different positions held – or formerly held – by Trump that, he says, are inconsistent with his own views. The Cruz campaign also launched two attack ads against the frontrunner last week.
But there are growing questions about how successful those attacks have been and whether they've hurt him more than Trump. An NBC/WSJ/Marist poll released on Thursday showed an 11-point swing in Cruz’s support from three weeks ago in Iowa, moving Donald Trump from a 4-point deficit to a 7-point edge over Cruz.
Meanwhile, Marco Rubio's support has grown to 18 percent of likely caucus-goers. The Cruz campaign went up on Iowa airwaves this week with an ad attacking Rubio on immigration. The campaign confirms it has other new anti-Rubio ads it will air in the state.
Cruz suggested to reporters Friday before his event in Fenton that “conservatives are uniting” behind his campaign.
But after a flurry of attacks and small decline in poll numbers, he does not appear to be overwhelmingly consolidating the non-Trump vote.
“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.”
Cruz paid light attention to his rivals, Trump and Rubio, briefly during his first stop in Ringsted, saying the duo had yet to pledge to repeal President Obama’s executive actions.
“And if you look particularly at President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty, Marco Rubio has gone on Univision and said in Spanish, ‘No, no, no, I wouldn’t rescind amnesty.’
Rep. Louie Gohmert, who endorsed Cruz in the spring, helped introduce Cruz on Friday over the candidate’s stops across Iowa.
And Gohmert gave a crack at Trump’s past marriage troubles, playing the attack dog role that Cruz avoided taking himself on Friday.
“If you can’t keep your vows that you’ve made more than once and you’re going to break those vows, is there any chance you’ll break your promises to me?” Gohmert asked the crowd of 50.
He also 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.