As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has embarked on her second presidential bid, the Democratic front-runner hasn't hesitated to call out her Republican rivals by name, castigating GOP hopefuls like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Donald Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for their stances on issues from voting rights to immigration reform to reproductive health care.
But as the contours of the Republican race shift with just under two months until the Iowa caucuses, Clinton is training her sights on a new target: Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
The focus on Cruz comes amid signs that after months of being overshadowed by Trump, the first-term senator is parlaying his popularity among evangelical and tea party voters into electoral support. The epicenter of Cruz's surge is in Iowa, where he's won support from key conservatives, including Republican Rep. Steve King and influential radio host Steve Deace. Those endorsements could reap dividends: According to the most recent Quinnipiac University poll of Iowa Republicans, Cruz has moved into a statistical tie for first place with Trump.
With Cruz on the ascent, "Hillary and Bill Clinton have increasingly begun to muse about the possibility of a Cruz candidacy — after months of focusing on the fast-fading Jeb Bush," Politico's Glenn Thrush reported Monday.
A new focus: By Tuesday, we had the most vivid demonstration yet that Clinton is starting to take Cruz seriously. After Cruz told Iowa voters he's "never met ... any conservative who wants to ban contraceptives," Clinton's campaign pounced.
Clinton's rapid response director Christina Reynolds fired off a list of "5 times Ted Cruz tried to ban contraception," pointing to examples like his past support for a "personhood amendment," which would prohibit some kinds of birth control; his threat to shut down the government unless Planned Parenthood was defunded; and his opposition to the Affordable Care Act's contraception coverage mandate.
"Ted Cruz wants to be president (and he's got as much of a shot as any of the Republican candidates)," Reynolds wrote. "But he not only refuses to face the truth that women's health and rights are under attack in this country — he has a long record of trying to limit access to birth control."
The memo offered a window into the Clinton campaign's strategy for undermining Cruz. As Hillaryland sees it, Cruz can speak the language of a deeply conservative GOP base or, as he sought to do this week, seek to appeal to the more moderate voters who will decide the general election — but he can't do both.
Why the hits? Sure, Cruz may be looking better in Iowa, but ask Presidents Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum how winning the caucuses worked out for them.
There's a crucial difference between Cruz and the Iowa victors in 2008 and 2012, however: Unlike those cash-strapped candidates, Cruz has assembled a formidable financial juggernaut. He ended the last fundraising quarter with more cash on hand "than any other GOP candidate," as the Washington Post noted.
Cruz's financial prowess — built on both grassroots goodwill and support among titans of industry — promises to power him well beyond Iowa. From the outset of his campaign, Cruz has had his eye on the so-called "SEC primary" on March 1, when a number of heavily conservative Southern voters head to the polls.
Still, Cruz can't win the nomination on victories in Iowa and the South alone. As the New York Times' Nate Cohn laid out in January, blue states are, paradoxically, disproportionately influential in selecting GOP nominees. As Cohn observed, states won by President Barack Obama will award half of the GOP's delegates next year. With Republicans in those states skewing more moderate than in Cruz-friendly states like Iowa, that poses a hurdle for the brashly conservative Texan.
But with a splintered GOP field — and in a primary process that's already laid waste to the conventional wisdom more than once — Cruz may yet overcome such obstacles. Clinton, accordingly, has taken note.