Cruz and Jindal Wait Impatiently for Their Chances

by Stuart Rothenberg October 29, 2015 · 9:01 AM EDT

Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz continue to plug away in Iowa, far back from the front-runners. But both are well aware that if Ben Carson turns out to be little more than Herman Cain, a political outsider who briefly sat atop the 2012 field, each of them could have his own moment.

Cruz and Jindal are among a handful of hopefuls who would like to lead evangelicals, social conservatives and tea party outsiders in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. So far, they have not gotten very far.

Donald Trump and Carson have sprinted to the front of the GOP race, both in Iowa and nationally, gobbling up support from those conservatives and anti-Washington Republicans who would be most likely to look at Cruz and Jindal if the non-politicians were not in the race.

Jindal has hammered away at anti-Washington, anti-Islamist and pro-religious freedom themes for months, wooing social conservatives and base voters. He has also traveled Iowa extensively, putting all of his eggs into the Hawkeye State basket.

It’s a very reasonable strategy, given the size and makeup of the field, Jindal’s potential appeal to evangelicals and his campaign’s limited resources. And in a sense, it has paid off.

The Oct. 16-19 Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll showed Jindal with a good 57 percent favorable/27 percent unfavorable rating among likely GOP caucus-goers, very similar to Cruz’s numbers (61 percent favorable/26 percent unfavorable).

But Jindal continues to show little or no strength in ballot tests. In the Iowa poll, he was the first choice of only 2 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers.

The governor and his team show no sign of giving up now, but they must be frustrated that he has been relegated to the non-prime time debates so far and has been unable to make inroads in establishing himself as the social conservatives’ favorite.

Carson’s positions on many issues resonate with evangelicals, as does his style, which emphasizes humility over braggadocio. As long as Carson runs well in Iowa, he is a huge headache for Jindal, who must finish strongly enough in the caucuses to establish his bonafides as a potential standard-bearer for evangelicals in the race.

Trump’s recent slide in Iowa certainly is good news for candidates on the right, but so far Jindal has not benefited. Indeed, if any candidate has a chance to benefit from Trump weakening (or from his exit from the race), it is Cruz, who has wooed Trump and his supporters for months.

While Jindal was at 2 percent in the Iowa poll, Cruz was at 10 percent, and the Texas senator has a bench of well-heeled supporters who seem prepared to bankroll his effort.

Cruz carries a message that is similar to that offered by Trump, Carson and Jindal. But Cruz has established a record on Capitol Hill of fighting his own party’s leadership, which could well give him extra credibility with voters who want change and who have contempt for the establishment.

An attorney, Cruz is much more politically sophisticated, savvy and polished than Trump or Carson, which gives the Texas senator considerable potential to pick up the pieces if the two front-running non-politicians fade quickly.

Of course, the biggest difference between Cruz and Jindal right now as they wait for their chances is that the governor needs to get past Cruz, while Cruz currently doesn’t need to worry about his Louisiana competitor.

In at least one way, both Cruz and Jindal face the same simple question: What do they do if Trump and Carson don’t fade noticeably between now and the end of the year? Do they target one or both men, which is always a risky and unwise strategy in a crowded race, or do they simply wait and hope that others in the field take steps to undermine Trump and Carson?

Cruz isn’t betting everything on Iowa, as Jindal has done. Instead, the Texas senator has spent considerable time in the March 1 states, figuring apparently that his Texas roots and anti-establishment conservatism will have particular appeal in many of the states with primaries scheduled for that day, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and, of course, the Lone Star State.

While many in the media seem focused on who is “winning” today, Cruz and Jindal know that the key date for them is Feb. 1, 2016, not Nov. 1, 2015.

Four years ago at this point, a Fox News poll showed Cain up by 4 points nationally among Republicans, while NBC News/Wall Street Journal showed Mitt Romney up 1. By mid-November, both of those polls, as well as Pew Research and Gallup, found Newt Gingrich with a double-digit lead.

No, there is no guarantee that today’s front-runners will fade, but both Cruz and Jindal know that Iowa caucus-goers make their decisions late and can be very unpredictable.

Cruz’s current positioning in the Republican race is actually quite good. He is now the leading credentialed conservative alternative to the two untested front-runners, and he appears to be poised to benefit if (and when) either or both exit the race. If that happens, it would put him in the “finals,” likely pitting him against the establishment’s preferred alternative and setting up yet another divisive fight inside the GOP.