With an eye on the White House, Cruz takes on Iowa

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Media captionCruz's visit fuelled speculation he planned to run for president in 2016

To the political left, the centre, and a fair chunk of his own Republican party, Ted Cruz is at best a political huckster - at worst something akin to the devil in human form.

But up close - or at least as close as you get in a large, featureless hall in Des Moines with 600 guests packed around 60 or so tables - the junior senator from Texas is different.

Iowa is Mr Cruz's first stop outside Texas since he led the battle with the Obama administration over the government shutdown. His defiance has made him a hero to many people in the grassroots of the party, the same people who propelled him to unexpected victory in his election to the senate.

Many - including a good number of Republicans - are convinced that the shutdown hurt the Republican Party politically. But Mr Cruz has not come to Iowa to apologise. Far from it.

Keen-eyed observers of the American political process will remember Iowa's proud claim to be first in the nation when it comes to the selection of candidates for the presidential race. The wooing of Iowa's Republican activists can never start too early.

In Des Moines local luminaries stood behind a lectern on a dais to address the crowd. Not Mr Cruz. He stood to one side, a microphone clipped to his tie.

In a blue suit with his black hair swept back at the sides, he is poised and confident, like the very smart lawyer that he is. Not a note appears as he speaks for over an hour.

At the beginning there is a folksy tale about his family. There's a self-deprecating reference to the 21-hour speech he carried out on the Senate floor to no particular effect a few weeks beforehand. And there's a joke - mandatory these days in Republican circles - about the "Obamacare" website and its failings.

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Image caption A politician with presidential ambitions can never start too soon wooing Iowa Republican activists

And then there's a clever, well-thought-out and well-delivered speech about how politics in the US is changing. There are gags to lighten the mood. And there are slightly hammy pauses now and then. But Mr Cruz treats his audience like grown-ups. For those who had the misfortune to follow the Romney campaign, it is a blessed relief.

First there is The Challenge.

"We are facing extraordinary times," he says. "Only the people can turn us around.

"This is not a typical moment in the political process… the administration is bent on violating every constitutional protection."

Then there is The Change, the way in which in 12 short months activists have, as he sees it, turned the tide of American politics.

"This new paradigm," he says, "the rise of the grassroots… has official Washington terrified."

On gun control, on military action in Syria, on the president's healthcare law and on immigration reform, it is grassroots action, he says, that has stopped the administration in its tracks.

Finally there is The Solution, which is freedom, lots of it; freedom that will lead to economic growth and opportunities for Americans currently crushed by over-regulation and high taxes.

He cheekily lurches onto traditionally Democratic territory, complaining that the rich have got richer under Barack Obama and that African Americans, Hispanics and young people have got poorer.

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Image caption Themes of the night were Ronald Reagan - and freedom

"We need to be about economic growth all the time, every day, that's how we turn the country around."

It is the Ronald Reagan Commemorative Dinner for the Iowa Republican Party, so the Gipper is, perhaps inevitably, dragged in to round the evening off.

"As Ronald Reagan famously observed," Mr Cruz said, "freedom is not passed down from one generation to the next in the bloodstream.

"Every generation has to stand up and defend freedom, so that one day we don't find ourselves answering our children, or our children's children [when they ask], 'What was it like, when America was free?'"

As the inevitable country music kicks in, the crowd are on their feet. It may sound overblown, melodramatic even. But Mr Cruz speaks to a part of the population convinced that the growth of government is gnawing away at what it means to be American.

A smart first-term senator with a good-looking wife and two young daughters who electrified the grassroots and threw the party establishment onto the defensive. That was Barack Obama just a few years ago.

It is a long way to the presidential primaries. But Mr Cruz will, you can be sure, be back in Iowa before long.