By Ginger Gibson
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) – Relishing victory in the first Republican nominating contest of the U.S. presidential election, Senator Ted Cruz called his defeat of Donald Trump in the Iowa caucuses a tribute to “conservative grass roots.”
Cruz also said the result from Monday’s contest was a rebuke to what he called President Barack Obama’s liberal agenda and a win for “Judeo-Christian values.”
“This is the power of the conservative grass roots,” the senator from Texas told CNN on Tuesday. “One of the greatest lies that gets told on the airwaves over and over again is that this country has somehow embraced Barack Obama’s big government. That’s not true. This is a center-right country. This is a country built on Judeo-Christian values,” he said.
Cruz won the Republican Iowa caucuses with 28 percent of the vote compared with 24 percent for businessman Trump, whose aggressive and unorthodox campaign has been marked by controversies ranging from his calls to ban Muslims temporarily from entering the United States to his pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Cruz, 45, was buoyed by evangelical support at the launch of the nominating process to pick the parties’ candidates for the Nov. 8 election. His strong get-out-the-vote effort helped counter the enthusiasm from large crowds that have shown up for Trump’s boisterous rallies.
A first-term senator and fiscal conservative from the Tea Party movement that emerged on the right of the Republican Party six years ago, Cruz has presented himself as a strong foreign policy hawk. He vowed to “carpet bomb” the militant group Islamic State into oblivion in a speech in December in which said, “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark but we are going to find out.”
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won by a razor-thin margin against U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the closest in Iowa Democratic caucus history.
Clinton, 68, prevailed by only four delegates, according to party figures. Sanders, 74, a self-described democratic socialist who has strongly attacked Clinton’s campaign from the left, declared the result a virtual tie after he had trailed the former first lady in opinion polls for months.
“I think the significance is for folks who did not think Bernie Sanders could win, that we could compete against Hillary Clinton, I hope that thought is now gone,” Sanders told CNN.
RUBIO IS MAINSTREAM HOPE
For the Republicans, Marco Rubio, 44, a U.S. senator from Florida, came in third with 23 percent, making a stronger-than-expected finish and establishing himself as the mainstream alternative to the two front-running rivals in the race to be the party’s presidential nominee.
The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio hopes to win back some of the Latino vote that the party has lost in recent years as it toughened its stance on immigration.
Iowans who supported Rubio at the caucuses said they responded to his positive message and viewed him as the best candidate to beat Clinton in the November election,should she be the Democratic nominee.
“People realized on the Republican side that we cannot afford – this country cannot afford – to lose this election, and that I give the party the best chance not just to unify our party but to grow it,” Rubio told ABC’s “Good Morning America” show.
The Midwestern state of Iowa has held the first nominating contest in the country since the early 1970s, giving it extra weight in the electoral process that can translate into momentum for winning candidates as they head into months of state-by-state battles.
An uncharacteristically humbled Trump, 69, congratulated Cruz and said he still expected to win the Republican nomination. Opinion polls show Trump leading nationally and in New Hampshire, which holds the next nominating contest next week.
“I’m just honored,” Trump said. Usually a prolific user of Twitter, where he has often issued scathing criticism of his rivals, Trump was silent on the social media site on Tuesday morning.
The 2016 election is shaping up to be the year of angry voters as disgruntled Americans worry about issues such as immigration, terrorism, income inequality and healthcare,fueling the campaigns of Trump, Sanders and Cruz.
Republican establishment candidates more traditional than Rubio did not fare well in Iowa. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush took 2.8 percent, Ohio Governor John Kasich took 1.9 percent, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took 1.8 percent.
Two White House hopefuls, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who had trouble gaining any traction in the Democratic race, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican, suspended their campaigns after doing badly in Iowa.
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, John Whitesides, Valerie Volcovici, Dustin Volz, Amy Tennery, Megan Cassella, Alana Wise, James Oliphant and Jonathan Allen; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Frances Kerry)