CONTOOCOOK, N.H. - Sen. Ted Cruz may have focused his attention on Iowa for the last few months, but he's back in New Hampshire on a five-day cross-state swing bus tour to solidify his support in the state where he began laying the groundwork this fall.
The Republican presidential candidate embarks on a 17-stop bus tour, taking him to Keene in the southwestern part of the state near Vermont to the White Mountains in the northeast to the coast and many places in between. He's attempting to prove to voters he hasn't forgotten about them despite his focus on the Iowa caucuses, which attract a large percentage of evangelicals, a demographic inclined to support him.
Cruz began seeing momentum in the Granite State in October, when he drew hundreds of exuberant supporters on a cold morning when he won the conservative 603 Alliance's first-ever caucus. This Iowa-style event at a barn-like arena at the Hopkinton State Fairgrounds resulted in Iowa-style crowds. But then his trips to the state came to a halt. He didn't visit New Hampshire for more than two months.
When the Texas senator finally returned last Tuesday, he was met with the same fervor he saw in the fall, only amplified. A few hundred people braved New England's January temperatures for an outdoor rally outside of a Hudson gun range. Also, a thousand people crammed into a high school cafeteria in Londonderry to hear Cruz deliver a performance of his hypothetical 2018 State of the Union address.
Cruz's Final Push
These trips are part of Cruz's big push in the state in the last month leading up to the primary on February 9th.
In addition to physically being present here, the campaign recently released its first campaign ad, a 60-second piece titled "Invasion," addressing illegal immigration. The candidate's campaign staff doubled to ten staffers here. The campaign reserved housing space for 40 volunteers in a dorm in Chester, dubbed New Hampshire's "Camp Cruz."
"We are all in on New Hampshire," he tells crowds in the state.
Cruz's New Hampshire Gamble
While Cruz is positioning himself as the most conservative candidate in the race, New Hampshire's Republicans have a reputation of embracing the party's more moderate choices. The state propelled Sen. John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 to victory. Its voters focus less on social issues and more on foreign policy, bipartisanship, and the federal budget, which is why Cruz's success in New Hampshire polls is all the more surprising.
"Cruz is a polarizer within his own party," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "And in New Hampshire, there are more (moderate and somewhat conservative) voters repelled by him, than there are very conservative voters attracted to him."
But Cruz's team believes Cruz could solidify a strong section of conservative voters. Other candidates most likely to appeal to the same voters - Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee - are mostly ignoring the state.
"If those candidates are not campaigning here or don't spend a significant amount of time here and don't build an organization, I think a lot of those voters will come to the Cruz campaign," former U.S. Sen. Bob Smith, one of Cruz's New Hampshire co-chairs, told NBC News during one of the senator's trips.
Furthermore, the more "establishment" lane - candidates New Hampshire voters tend to support - is crowded and the vote is split between four other candidates.
"The thing that people need to understand is that a victory here is a plurality. Mitt Romney won in 2012 with a plurality. It was only 39 percent of the vote and that's a win in terms of the image of a victory," he added. "Somebody is going to win here with a plurality of votes."
"I think that Ted Cruz is positioned well to capitalize on expected momentum coming out of Iowa," said New Hampshire Republican strategist Mike Dennehy, who worked on Rick Perry's presidential campaign this year and is not affiliated with any campaign.
New Hampshire Will Test Cruz's Staying Power
New Hampshire is the ultimate test for Cruz's overall strategy to appeal to a broader section of Republican voters than just evangelicals. The "Live Free or Die" state enjoys a strong libertarian streak. People move here to avoid higher taxes and government interference in their lives.
"It's a cross of conservatives, liberty-minded people, second amendment voters, faith-based pastors, Tea Party activists," Cruz's New Hampshire State Director Ethan Zorfas said. "As you have seen throughout the country, people who are frustrated with the way Washington government is working and people who want to see more change."
In 2012, libertarian Ron Paul placed second in the state's Republican primary, with an impressive 23% of the vote.
Cruz is after those voters too. At a libertarian convention, called Republican Liberty Caucus National Biennial Convention, in October, Cruz came in a close second to Paul's son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (445 votes versus Cruz's 399).
"The liberty movement has been integral to our campaign from day one," Cruz told reporters at the event. "When I ran for Senate, I was blessed to be endorsed by both Ron Paul and Rand Paul."
Cruz is one of the more scripted candidates on the campaign trail, strictly sticking to most of the same lines at every event, but when he speaks to libertarians, he focuses on a few talking points popular with crowd.
He said he took on "virtually the entire Republican Party" while sponsoring the USA Freedom Act, legislation that imposed some new limits on the government's bulk collection of telecommunication metadata. He also says he was "proud to lead the fight against a unilateral military attack on Syria" in 2013.
"We have a good strong group of liberty leaders who were with Ron Paul that are now with us and I think it's an important part of any winning coalition in New Hampshire and we've been pursuing those endorsements and getting a great response from liberty voters," Zorfas said.
Sen. Paul dismissed the idea that some of his father's voters could be shifting to Cruz when asked by reporters about it at the event. "Both here and in Iowa we know where our support is and where my Dad's support was and we feel very confident that the majority of it is with us," he said.
Cruz's Obama Strategy
Cruz points to his leadership team of Smith, former N.H. House Speaker Bill O'Brien, and Executive Councilor David Wheeler as evidence that he's taking the state seriously.
"You couldn't find three more well-respected conservatives in state of New Hampshire if you tried. Our leadership team consists of respected leaders across the state bringing together libertarians and evangelicals and young people," Cruz told NBC News in an interview at a house party in Salem. "We are building a grassroots army to compete vigorously in New Hampshire."
When Cruz opened his New Hampshire headquarters in Manchester at the end of August, he said he is modeling his campaign after President Barack Obama's grassroots efforts. He said he even bought Obama's top strategist David Plouffe's book "The Audacity to Win" and gave it to his staff.
Cruz's campaign says they've done a good job replicating Obama's model.
"Our strength is our grassroots. Those folks who came out and supported Senator Cruz in the caucus, those are folks who are making phone calls," said Zorfas. "That wave that we have is as strong if not stronger than anyone else in New Hampshire right now."
At his campaign office opening this summer, which was the first outside of Texas, Cruz stood on a painting on the floor of the flame that became his campaign symbol and instructed the crowd to become "arsonists" by spreading the "flames of liberty."
He stuck around for more than an hour afterward to talk to some of the 250 people in attendance, take pictures and sign autographs.