DES MOINES, Iowa -- Ted Cruz is rising in the polls. He has one of the stronger Republican organizations in the GOP presidential race. And he certainly has a path to win the Iowa caucuses, especially after a recent Quinnipiac poll found Cruz in a dead heat with Donald Trump here in the Hawkeye State.
But some Iowa Republicans – even those open to his message – wonder if Cruz is too conservative and controversial to win the general election as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
Bob Wilson, 64, of Johnston, Iowa, who likes Cruz but is undecided on a candidate in the GOP race, doubts the Texas Republican’s appeal among the general electorate.
“Will he be elected because he’s a lightning rod?” Wilson asked rhetorically while shaking his head back and forth. “It’s not because of his policies. I just don’t think he has the personality to capture the national election.”
Wilson continued, “Am I sad about that? You bet. Do I think that’s the way it should be? No way.”
Luke Bata, 27, an evangelical Christian working at a Sioux City insurance agency, intends to caucus for Marco Rubio, believing the Florida senator – rather than Cruz -- would be in the best position to win over non-traditional Republican voters next November.
“[Cruz] comes off as overly conservative in his views,” Bata said. “I think it’ll be more difficult for him to pull in minorities or Democrats than Rubio.”
And Irene Miller, 69, a retiree in Carlisle, Iowa, questions how Cruz’s hardline approach to legislating will affect his ability to work with Congress. Instead, she supports Ben Carson.
“Cruz does say some good things, but in the back of my mind, when I’m listening to him talk, I think, ‘Yeah, you got to get it passed by Congress. You can wish the moon to turn to green,’” Miller said. “We can wish. We can hope. I just don’t see him being a strong leader in that seat.”
Cruz, however, dismisses those concerns. And to change that perception, he invokes another Republican politician who was deemed too conservative and controversial: Ronald Reagan.
“I’m convinced 2016 will be an election like 1980,” Cruz said last month in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “We will win by following Reagan’s admonition by painting in bold colors, not pale pastels. We have done it before — we can do it again.”
Indeed, at campaign events across the Hawkeye State here, Cruz is trying to change that perception that he is purely a hardline conservative candidate.
Cruz said he will work “to bring together conservatives and evangelicals and libertarians, to bring together young people, Hispanics” and “to bring together African-Americans, women and Reagan Democrats.”
The argument for his viability largely hinges on broadening that appeal, like Reagan did.
“I’m not almost making that pitch. I’m explicitly making that pitch,” Cruz told NBC News last month.
Whether Iowa Republican buy that pitch or not could very well determine if Cruz wins the Iowa caucuses two months from now.
Can he compromise with the opposition?
Asked by NBC News about his own record of compromise, Cruz said, “From the day I was elected, I have consistently said my approach on compromise is the same as Reagan’s.”
“Reagan used to say, ‘What do you do if they offer you half a loaf? The answer: You take it – and then you come back for more.’ And so from Day One, I’ve said I’m perfectly happy to compromise with anyone – Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians.”
But Cruz’s record in the U.S. Senate – no matter who is to blame – is not one of compromise.
“Ted Cruz is no Reagan,” said Chester Pach, a historian at Ohio University writing a book on Reagan’s presidency.
“It’s not that there’s a lack of conviction or principle among people who hold elected office,” Pach said. “But it’s a struggle to find willingness to do basic things like pass a budget.”
After all, Cruz was at the forefront of the government shutdown in Oct. 2013, when he and other impassioned conservative lawmakers tried to eliminate funding for the Affordable Care Act. And he played major roles in efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, repeal the president’s immigration executive actions, hold-up of Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Defense secretary and reject increases in the nation’s debt ceiling.
Lee Edwards, a historian at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says Reagan’s governing pragmatism was evident before his election as president.
“As governor of California, he was trying to get through welfare reform,” Edwards said, recalling the passing of the package of reforms. “This was 1972 -- welfare reform in California -- and the only way he could do it was sitting down with the Democrat majority leader of the state legislature. He did that over a period of months and months with this guy.”
Can he win over critics in his own party?
On the campaign trail, Cruz is trying to dispel notions that his well-documented conflicts with members of would hinder to his ability to lead the Republican Party to victory next November.
“Sometimes people look back at Reagan with rose-colored glasses and suggest he was simply a sunny optimist who did not take on his own party – to the contrary,” Cruz told NBC News. “If you want to cause Republican leadership in Washington to loathe you, come within an inch of defeating the incumbent Republican president in a primary, as Reagan did.”
Indeed, Reagan challenged the incumbent, President Gerald Ford, in the 1976 race for the Republican nomination and kept the contest narrow all the way to the party’s convention.
“Yes, that stung people,” Edwards recalled. “There was some resentment there on the part of Ford people that he had challenged him.”
But leading into 1980, Reagan’s efforts to reach out to the so-called establishment changed the dynamics, Edwards said.
“The more [Reagan] campaigned, the more the establishment realized he was more than a puppet on anyone’s strings,” Edwards said. “When he campaigned in Washington, it was to talk to the establishment. He went to a dinner party with Katherine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post. He was reaching out to the establishment and using that charm of his to show them that he wasn’t that old or dumb.”
But just one year away from the general election, Cruz’s hard-charging ways haven’t only alienated Democrats; they’ve alienated Republicans, too.
Cruz also invokes Reagan’s 11th commandment – do not speak ill about other Republicans – on the road despite, for instance, calling his Republican colleague and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar just last July.
“You get intellectual whiplash because he will make the argument that we need to work together and overcome these differences and move forward,” said Cal Jillson, a longtime political analyst at Southern Methodist University. “I think it is too late -- because he already has an image established in the public mind.”
Can he rejuvenate the Reagan coalition?
Cruz says his conservative credentials would turn out Republican voters to the polls overwhelmingly next November.
But understanding that conservatives – alone – would likely not win him the general election, Cruz says on the stump that he will recreate the “Reagan coalition” by drawing in supporters outside of today’s modern Republican Party.
Earlier this month, Cruz directly appealed to union workers after the Obama administration rejected the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
“I think that is cold and cynical,” Cruz said. “I’ll tell you, for every union member in America, I will stand and fight for your job.”
Democrats, though, brush off the suggestion that Cruz, like Reagan, could effectively cut into the Democratic voting bloc.
“He can make the pitch, but arguably the Democrat he’ll be running against is likely Hillary Clinton,” said Jerry Austin, a longtime Democratic strategist in Ohio. “And if it’s Hillary, I don’t know you make that pitch that she’s anti-job creation or anti-union.”