U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz | Gage Skidmore

Ted Cruz vulnerable on ethanol after Trump drops out of debate

Sen. Ted Cruz faces a tough challenge to his stance against taxpayer support for ethanol at Thursday's Republican presidential debate.

Cruz, who currently holds second place to Donald Trump, will make a juicy target after Trump's decision to skip the debate. 

Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul are the only two candidates who have received a “bad” rating from the pro-ethanol group America’s Renewable Future. The organization’s director, Eric Branstad, is the son of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. 

"Agriculture is important to Iowa,” University of Iowa politcal science professor Tim Hagel told AMI Newswire. Hagel said there was a strong chance the ethanol issue would come up at the debate. 

Branstad, a pro-ethanol Republican who has served as the Hawkeye State's governor intermittently since 1983, told reporters last week that he wanted to see Cruz defeated in the caucuses.

Branstad slammed the senator’s stance against the Renewable Fuels Standard, which requires a minimum amount of the corn-based fuel to be added to gas pumps.

That stance could give an opening to other candidates, particularly Florida Sen. Marc Rubio, who is polling at a distant third behind Cruz and Trump. In recent speeches and campaign ads, the Florida senator has been emphasizing his religious faith in an apparent attempt to stand out from the frontrunners.

America’s Renewable Future did not respond to calls and emails from AMI Newswire.

Trump told reporters at a press conference announcing his endorsement by Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio on Tuesday, that he “most likely” won’t be doing the debate.

“The democrats are finished with their debates,” Trump said at the Marshalltown, Iowa press conference. “Republicans go on forever and ever with debates … It’s time that somebody plays grown-up.”

Trump criticized the selection of anchor Megyn Kelly as the moderator for the Fox News debate. Trump and Kelly exchanged barbs in a debate last August that garnered harsh criticism from many within the GOP.

Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

In lieu of his debate appearance, Trump has instead pledged to hold an event at the same time raising money for veterans.

At a pro-life rally in Des Moines the day after the withdrawal announcement, Cruz took aim at Trump, offering to hold a one-on-one debate. 

“This entire process is a job interview,” Cruz told the crowd in Des Moines. “Standing in front of the men and women .. answering the hard questions, that’s what any candidate who hopes to win the state of Iowa owes to the men and women of this state.” 

The Texas senator did not address fuel subsidies as part of his speech in Des Moines. Speaking at the same event was former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another critic of ethanol subsidies. 

“There were expectations a year ago, on either the Democratic or Republican side, you might have additional candidates address [ethanol subsidies]. The most obvious was Rick Perry,” University of Michigan public policy professor Barry Rabe told AMI Newswire. “But that really hasn’t happen.” 

If Cruz loses Iowa by a slim margin, Rabe told AMI, his ethanol stance would likely be a factor.