Click here for the full Jan. 26, 2015 article from GQ’s website.
Since the end of the 2012 presidential campaign, we political reporters who’ve now and again trailed the various 2016 presidential wannabes out to Iowa have done so with a certain amount of sheepishness, if not shame. Covering a campaign years before the actual election is enough to make a journalist feel embarrassed, if you can believe it. “It’s like seeing your friend from church at the strip club,” a fellow schlepper joked to me when we bumped into each other in the lobby of the Des Moines Marriott two summers ago while following around Ted Cruz. And to be sure, years worth of overheated, speculation-drenched coverage is more harmful to our democracy than mere lap dances. But this weekend, the Marriott was a guilt-free zone and a scene that maybe even Alexis de Tocqueville could have appreciated. Dozens of reporters from Washington and New York schmoozed and drank at the hotel bar unburdened by any self-consciousness. The Marriott felt like Caucus eve. Coming to Iowa was socially and journalistically acceptable again.
The traveling swarm of political reporters were in Des Moines for the “Iowa Freedom Summit,” Saturday’s ten-hour marathon of speechifying and gripping-and-grinning that served as the unofficial kickoff of the Republican presidential primary process. The brainchild of archconservative Iowa Congressman Steve King—who often utilizes his intellect to bemoan illegal immigration, declaring for instance that children of undocumented immigrants are typically marijuana smugglers with “calves the size of cantaloupes”—the Freedom Summit was catnip for about 1,200 of Iowa’s hard-core conservative activists, who began lining up outside the historic theater hosting the summit before dawn. That naturally meant it was also catnip for the Republican presidential candidates who want to be loved by those hard-core activists—voters and volunteers, who, because of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus, wield a disproportionate amount of power in propelling or stalling White House contenders. And because this is Iowa, these activists are especially excited by the far right wing ideas and candidates.
In Iowa, however, a newer, more fiery Walker emerged. Pacing the stage in rolled-up shirtsleeves, he dwelled on the personal toll of his political battles in Wisconsin, describing in detail the death threats he says he and his family received from angry liberals. “Someone literally sent me a threat saying they were going to gut my wife like a deer,” Walker said. And he repeatedly touted his willingness “to go big and go bold” as governor, mentioning not just his union-busting efforts, but also his defunding of Planned Parenthood, expansion of gun rights, and implementation of a strict Voter ID law. “If you’re not afraid to go big and bold,” Walker said, “you can actually get results.”
Cruz doesn’t have a record of results like Walker’s. He has no legislative accomplishments to his name and his two years in the Senate have been marked by futile—and sometimes counter-productive—efforts. But while these have made him the most hated man in Washington, loathed even by many of his fellow Senate Republicans, they’ve turned him into a hero outside the Beltway. There, Cruz has been able to recast his kamikaze campaigns as courageous and principled stands. “In a Republican primary, every candidate’s going to come before you and say, ‘I’m the most conservative guy who ever lived,'” Cruz told the crowd in Des Moines. “You know what, talk is cheap. The Word tells us you shall know them by their fruits. . . . If you say you support liberty, show me where you stood up and fought for it.”
At the end of the event, which had the feel at times of an NFL draft combine, GOP pollster Frank Luntz declared Cruz the top prospect. “Watching him, watching the faces of people watching him, he lit this place up, he connects with these people” Luntz told me. Then he added, “But don’t forget, Iowa isn’t New Hampshire.”