AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
As we just heard, Republican Party approval ratings are lower than ever, but that's not stopping Texas Senator Ted Cruz from taking a post-shutdown victory lap in Iowa tonight. Cruz is headlining the state Republican Party's annual Reagan dinner and he's often talked about as a potential presidential candidate. Iowa, of course, holds the first presidential caucus. NPR's Tamara Keith is in Des Moines to hear the speech and she joins us now. Hey there, Tamara.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: So Ted Cruz in Iowa already and you're in Iowa already.
KEITH: I know, it's painful. It's so early but apparently it is never too early to visit Iowa. And this isn't even Senator Cruz's first time here. This is his third visit in three months. But at tonight's dinner he comes in off of this big shutdown. And for the folks who will be at this dinner, that is a triumphant arrival. I spoke with A. J. Spiker who's the head of the state party and he says Senator Cruz isn't the only person visiting.
A.J. SPIKER: In the next 30 days we're going to be seeing quite a few candidates. We've got, you know, Cruz at our dinner, but Mike Lee will be here. Next month, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee and Paul Ryan. So there's a huge list of people that are going to be coming in the next 30 days.
KEITH: This is the phase that you would call the planting-the-seeds phase where potential possible maybe candidates come and raise a lot of money for state Republicans.
CORNISH: Seriously? I mean, most people are probably thinking, no, it's too early to start talking about the next presidential election. But, of course, since we've already started, what do political operators you've been talking to in Iowa have to say about a potential Cruz candidacy?
KEITH: He's hot right now but he is also a very polarizing figure. You know, either you love him or you hate him. And you either think that he's exactly what the Republican Party needs or, as many operatives have said, they feel like he led the party into a boxed canyon with this government shutdown. There was no way they would win and they distracted from the health care law's failings for two weeks while the government was shut down. In the process though, he did build his name ID and his donor base.
But now, today, is so far away from when the caucuses really get going. John Stineman is a public affairs consultant with deep roots in Iowa Republican politics.
JOHN STINEMAN: He will come here and he will be well received by the Tea Party element of the party and he'll stir things up. And he'll raise a lot of money for Republicans and that's great. But it's not to say that that popularity within this moment in time translates to the lead-up to the 2016 caucus. That is a lifetime between now and then.
CORNISH: So that's John Stineman talking about the Tea Party. But if Cruz is, as you've described, a polarizing figure in the Republican Party, how is he likely to be received tonight?
KEITH: Well, tonight he's likely to be received like a rock star. As Stineman put it, if you buy Justin Bieber tickets you're going to scream when Justin Bieber comes on stage. In this case, people paid $75, $100, even more to come see Ted Cruz. I don't know that there will be any fainting but, you know, this is going to be a dedicated crowd of conservative activists. And also just given the dynamics in the Iowa GOP right now, these are likely to be people who are on more of the Tea Party side of the spectrum.
Earlier this week, I was at a GOP Senate debate and I met a woman named Kay Cork and asked her about Cruz and about the government shutdown, sort of fishing around to see if those divisions were there. She said the shutdown didn't bother her at bit.
KAY CORK: He's doing what he believes is right for the people that he represents. And that's what I want to see in Washington, absolutely.
KEITH: And that's probably exactly what you'd expect to hear from someone who would show up for a candidate's debate eight months before the primary. There is a very big debate in the Republican Party about tactics and in some cases about issues. But you're not likely to find that at an early candidate's debate or at tonight's dinner.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Tamara Keith in Des Moines. Tamara, thank you.
KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.