At a convention of more than 2,000 religious conservatives last week, Ted Cruz worked the crowd like the son of a preacher man knows how. Unlike Senate colleagues and possible 2016 rivals Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, Cruz stepped away from the podium and strode back and forth across the stage with outstretched arms. A day later, a straw poll showed him to be the runaway favorite.
But outside that Values Voter Summit, there is little applause for Cruz. After a 21-hour speech on the Senate floor defying President Obama's health care law launched a government shutdown and drove the nation to the edge of default, most Americans take a dim view of Cruz's all-or-nothing tactics.
"He's a niche candidate who is only popular in talk-radio fantasy land," said Steve Schmidt, a top adviser to 2008 nominee John McCain.
Polls are already capturing the disconnect between the conservative grassroots and the rest of the country when it comes to the senator from Texas. Favorable views of Cruz among tea-party Republicans soared by 27 points since July, but unfavorable opinions among other adults jumped 15 points, according to the Pew Research Center.
So, unless Cruz expands his appeal beyond that Values Voter hotel ballroom (and rallying with scorned 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin last week shows he isn't even trying), the national ambitions suggested by his frequent trips to early primary states will never translate into a win.
"He will certainly have a loud cheering section of value voters, and we will see whether the Republican Party wants to nominate someone with no experience, no leadership, and no chance of winning a general election," said Schmidt, who is vice chairman of public affairs for Edelman, one of the world's largest public-relations firms.
The tests that voters typically put before would-be presidents go beyond Cruz's demonstrated skill set. While his fiery rhetoric and confrontational style rev up conservative audiences, those same qualities are likely to preclude him from passing one of those central assessments: Can this man be trusted with the red phone, the nuclear codes, or, as Hillary Rodham Clinton called the foreign policy test in her 2008 presidential campaign, the 3 a.m. call? When it comes to choosing a commander in chief, voters look for a steady hand, not a fist pump.
Even Cruz's base is starting to erode. After egging on Capitol Hill the last few weeks, the Houston Chronicle—the hometown newspaper that endorsed Cruz in his 2012 Senate campaign—was wistful over the absence of his more temperate predecessor, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. "Cruz has been part of the problem in specific situations where Hutchison would have been part of the solution," the newspaper editorialized. Jamie Weinstein, senior editor of the right-leaning Daily Caller, predicted this week that "if the conservative grassroots continue to follow Cruz, they will be led from the cur-rent government shutdown to future electoral shutdowns."
And if that weren't enough, the budget showdown has put Cruz squarely at odds with one of the Republican Party's most important constituencies: the business community. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a joint letter with the AFL-CIO, urged Congress and President Obama to resolve the conflict, calling the shutdown "harmful and the risk of default potentially catastrophic for our fra-gile economy."
Cruz's latest fundraising report shows success luring small, grassroots donors—93 percent of the 12,000 donations in the past three months were under $100. But major donors say he has alienated the titans of industry who have long fueled GOP campaigns. "I certainly wouldn't write him a check," said Al Hoffman, former finance director for the Republican National Committee and a Florida real-estate developer. "He's going to have a tough time. These tea-party Republicans are so out of control and unreasonable that there's few big donors who are going to open up their pocketbooks."
Another mega-donor who has advised four Republican presidents, Fred Malek, said the shutdown increased the likelihood that the next GOP nominee will come from a state capital. "The recent debacle in Washington will make the vast majority of Republicans more confident about nominating a governor than someone who comes out of the Congress," he said.
Cruz's Cuban-American heritage would appear to be an asset at a time when the Republican Party's path back to the White House runs through the fast-growing Hispanic community. Except that he fiercely opposes two issues dear to Hispanic voters: comprehensive immigration reform and the new health care law. (A Pew Research Center/USA Today poll in September found that 61 percent of Hispanics approve of the Affordable Care Act.) "He took on a piece of legislation that's more popular among Hispanics than the general population, so his biography is not going to help much," said Gary Segura, a principal of the Latino Decisions polling firm and a Stanford University professor of American politics.
Next Friday, Ted Cruz is slated to headline the Republican Party of Iowa's Ronald Reagan Commemorative Dinner. He can expect a standing ovation from an audience dominated by conservative activists. But when he walks outside the convention center in Des Moines and travels across the country, he'll likely find few other people cheering.