-- While Donald Trump seizes the headlines for his controversial comments about Hillary Clinton and his proposal to ban Muslims, his chief rival in the Republican presidential field, Sen. Ted Cruz, has quietly but steadily been gaining on the real estate mogul by engaging in relentless retail politics.
A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday shows Cruz in second place with 24 percent, just 4 points less than Trump. It’s Cruz’s highest national showing to date.
“I think what a lot of people are starting to realize is that we’re not in some surge here. This is not an insurgency. This is a slow-growing, momentum building campaign and it’s backed and fueled by conservatives uniting,” said Cruz Campaign Manager Jeff Roe at a stop in Knoxville, Tenn., Tuesday.
From airplane hangars to high school gymnasiums to farm fields, Cruz has been crisscrossing the country in the days before Christmas as part of a “Take Off With Ted" tour. His rallies over the last week has drawn thousands of supporters. His campaign increasingly believes the race for the Republican presidential nomination will come down to him and Trump.
“Donald Trump said a couple days ago that he thinks this race will come down to him and me. I think Donald may well be right," Cruz told reporters on Tuesday. "It could easily end up being a two man race between Donald Trump and me and I think that presents a good choice to the American people."
Roe backed up Cruz's claims, saying Trump was a stronger competitor than Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who trails both men in third place in national polls.
“What we see on the ground and what we see organizationally and who we see that we’re competing with in the first four states and the southern part of the SEC primary, we see Trump and nobody else,” Roe said.
Cruz, who typically flies commercial, chartered a plane for his seven-day Christmas tour. Cruz launched the tour in Nevada before pivoting to Minnesota, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Virginia.
“Those are southern states. They’re conservative states. They’re military veterans. They’re gun owners. They’re southern Baptist evangelicals. We are going to have an incredible day on 'Super Tuesday,'” Cruz said on Dec. 19.
Roe said part of the purpose of the senator’s trips was to create memories and experiences for voters.
The campaign hired a Santa at every stop to take photos with supporters. Showing the campaign’s digital savviness, the photos were only taken after supporters provided information about themselves. Lines were often out the door hours before the event even started.
Cruz even stayed long after the events wrapped, shaking hands, signing posters, taking photos with constituents. In Bloomingdale, Georgia, it was repeated several times that Cruz was the only candidate to visit the town three times this election cycle.
“The numbers are growing and we’re flying now instead of driving so that’s a sign of good things. And we have great events, great hosts,” said Roe of the campaign’s events this past week.
At several stops, well-known speakers introduced Cruz to the crowds. In Kennesaw, Georgia, one-time presidential candidate Herman Cain introduced Cruz.
“I am not at liberty to endorse anyone but I would not be here if I didn't like the candidate you like," Cain told the crowd. "That's not an endorsement. I'm just saying what I'm saying."
Standing behind a logo that says “Trusted,” Cruz often generated standing ovations for his tough talk on immigration, a topic that has drawn increased scrutiny since the last GOP debate.
Guest speakers on the tour like Ken Cucinnelli, Sen. Jeff Sessions and Rep. Mo Brooks have fiercely defended Cruz from the onslaught of attacks on his immigration record from Rubio and others who have questioned Cruz’s stance on legalization. Cruz has said he opposes legalization and offered the amendment as a “poison pill” to defeat the legislation.
“I oppose amnesty, I oppose citizenship, I oppose legalization,” said Cruz at a campaign stop in Kennesaw, Georgia. “Today, tomorrow, forever. I believe in the rule of law. You know if you or I cross over into another country, we cross over in China, we cross over to Germany or France, we cross over to Mexico, and they apprehend us, they’d deport us. Every other country on Earth enforces their laws, America’s laws deserve the same respect.”
“I think when Rubio said that it actually backfired on him because people actually started delving into what actually happened and you know there’s been a groundswell of support for Cruz especially among conservative leaders. You’ve got Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity all coming up and actually pointing out what really did happen so I think it really turned out being a huge bonus for him,” said Josh Wheeler of Monte Carlo, Alabama.
Wheeler has seen Cruz several times in person. Perhaps showing one of the ultimate forms of support, he was wearing the Cruz “Ugly Holiday Christmas Sweater” that the campaign has been selling on its site. Wheeler said the issues that matter most to him are national security and getting the federal budget under control.
Becky Todzia of Rainbow City, Alabama, has been a long-time Cruz supporter, going to his bus tour in the summer and donating to his campaign. She said as the months have ticked by, she’s slowly watched her friends and family gravitate toward Cruz.
“It took a while for the polls to start catching up but I didn’t get nervous, wasn’t worried about Trump to be honest,” she said. “We knew waiting for his solid debate performances would be what really brought people to him.”
For Todzia, her number one issue is amnesty. She doesn’t believe Cruz has changed his stance on legalizing undocumented immigrants, but believes the questions on his immigration record will follow Cruz throughout his campaign.
“You know it will come back up in the debates again. You know every time he’s starting to be higher in the polls, people will ask him about it and it will get clarified, it will come out but to say that Cruz is for amnesty is ridiculous,” Todzia said. “My candidate’s not perfect. Nobody’s perfect.”
Todzia, who previously volunteered for Michelle Bachmann in the 2012 presidential election, believes Cruz can eventually overtake Donald Trump’s lead.
“People say they’re for Trump. What are they for Trump for? They’re for Trump because they want a fighter, right? They want somebody who’s going to stand up for us,” Todzia said. “But here you have someone like Cruz who to me is more eloquent, more articulate, can get that point across and understands that you can’t alienate maybe certain groups but there’s a way that maybe you can convey your point of view and your values and your principles that will make people know where you’re coming from.”
Cruz is leaving the chartered plane behind and getting on a bus for a 36 county tour of Iowa during the first week of January.