Iowa's conservative kingmaker Steve King on why Ted Cruz is gaining momentum

Rep. Steve King, the seven-term congressman known as the conservative kingmaker of Iowa, the first place in the nation where voters officially weigh in on presidential candidates, sees Sen. Ted Cruz’s recent rise in the state polls and feels validation.

King, whose support is diligently pursued by Republicans running for office, particularly the Oval Office, endorsed Cruz for president in mid-November.

“I’m happy about what I see,” King said in an interview with Fox News Latino. “When I see the poll results, everything I’ve seen says there’s one candidate that has serious momentum, and that’s Ted Cruz. I have people coming up to me at church Sunday night, at the reception after [the mass], saying they’re supporting Cruz. That comports with the polls I’ve seen of Iowa.”

And more than a few fellow Iowans, King said, indicated that they decided to back Cruz after their congressman said he was endorsing the Texas firebrand. The Iowa primary is on Feb. 1.

King notes that there other GOP candidates, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who impress him and echo his deeply conservative views on such things as abortion, same-sex marriage, and immigration.

But none is as comprehensively ready to helm the White House, King says, as Cruz.

“Ted Cruz checks all boxes for a full-spectrum constitutional conservative,” King said. “If I look at where the candidates are, there are people” who are strong in certain areas.

“They all speak well to the issues,” said King, whose son, Jeff, was recently tapped to run Cruz’s super-PAC Iowa operation, which has a half-dozen people on staff. “But there’s no one who knows the judicial branch like Ted Cruz knows it, and who’s argued before the Supreme Court.”

Cruz has sought to distinguish himself in Congress by carrying – proudly and loudly – the anti-GOP-establishment torch.  He has courted tea party and other conservative groups that have nothing short of disdain for Republicans they view as part of the Washington D.C. political status quo.

Cruz vexed many fellow Republicans by refusing to back down from stances that at times have backfired, putting a stain on the entire GOP. In 2013, he led the fight to defund Obamacare, resulting in a standoff in Congress that led to a government shutdown.

He considers his notoriety among the GOP establishment a badge of honor. It’s part of his pitch for why he is the best candidate to change the status quo in Washington.

Despite being controversial and reviled by some, even by members of his own party, King said Cruz is gaining traction because “no one is stronger at national security, ending sanctuary cities, and defending the rule of law.”

Cruz now is just behind Donald Trump in polls of likely Iowa caucus-goers. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who had managed to dethrone Trump for a time in the top slot in Iowa polls, slipped behind Cruz and Trump.

The public’s preoccupation with national security following the terrorist attacks in Paris, and the many questions surrounding the true motivations of Russian President Vladimir Putin's military strikes in Syria, have thrust foreign policy onto the front burner in the presidential race.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Paris brought the focus on national security,” King said. “There’s a geopolitical chess board going on. Putin is sitting on the other side (of the table) right now. Don’t you want a candidate that when Putin is there, it’s Putin that blinks?”

King concedes that Carson’s verbal blunders in recent weeks, and low-key demeanor that seems like weakness to many voters preferring more toughness these days, have helped boost Cruz.

“He’s a beneficiary of Ben Carson’s bad publicity,” King said.

King knows that polls can be roller coasters, and that many people don’t even begin to tune in to the details of a presidential race until after the beginning of the year.

Trump and Cruz have been fairly amicable to each other, even appearing together at a rally to oppose the Iran nuclear agreement. But King wonders how long that civility will last if the two appear to get into a face-off.

Trump has taken aim at nearly every one of his opponents, particularly when they appear to rise in the polls and gather strength. Cruz has defended Trump, even as the billionaire has expressed numerous offensive views that many erroneously –thus far – have predicted would finally doom him.

“We’ll see if Donald Trump continues to show the deference to Ted Cruz,” King said. “I’ll be watching to see if those two guys stay friends in the next month.”

King says Cruz would be wise to stay focused on his proposals, on his own views.

“As far as Iowa is concerned, Cruz would be better off with a positive message, and saying what he is for, rather than tossing mud,” he said. “If you’re strong in issue after issue, you don’t need to tear somebody else down.”

King balks at the view of many political experts that a hard line conservative cannot win a general presidential election.

The congressman said the key is to energize conservatives and evangelicals to turn out to vote in November.

“If [Mitt] Romney had energized them, he would have won.”