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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Of course, one of the most vocal opponents of the health care law has been Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and last night the senator was in Iowa headlining a fundraising dinner for the state Republican Party. Iowa is also the state that commences the presidential contest every four years, with it's first-in-the-nation caucuses. Senator Cruz is often mentioned as a potential candidate in 2016. Yes, we know it's only 2013, but NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith was there.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: For Senator Ted Cruz, it was his third visit to Iowa in as many months. But this time was different. It was his first time back since the government shutdown and his 21-hour anti-Obamacare talkathon that preceded it, events that catapulted him from the junior senator from Texas to a conservative hero and household name.

So it's no surprise Cruz got a standing ovation as he was introduced to the crowd of 600 Iowa Republicans gathered for the state's annual Reagan dinner.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Senator Ted Cruz.

(APPLAUSE)

KEITH: What is more surprising is the clapping only lasted 40 seconds, the reception more polite than electric. This, after a week ago, he got an eight-minute standing ovation upon his return to Texas. In Des Moines last night, he started by talking about his very long speech on the senate floor.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: Twenty-one hours is a long time. I mean, that's almost as long as it takes to sign up on the Obamacare website.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: It's not hard to find Republicans willing to openly criticize Senator Cruz and his effort to defund the health care law. It was destined to fail, they say, a huge mistake that tanked Republican popularity and could have long-term consequences for the party. In his speech, Cruz blamed his fellow Republican senators for the failure, but then turned his remarks to the need for unity.

CRUZ: We need to come together, and let me tell you, growth and freedom are principles and ideals that unify the entire Republican Party.

KEITH: This is exactly what Betsy Sigler came to hear.

BETSY SIGLER: I love Ted Cruz.

KEITH: Sigler is a pediatrician and mother of three and says she would have kept that standing ovation going a whole lot longer if she had her way.

SIGLER: We're smarter than what the media is trying to play us for. Nobody's divided. We all want freedom, we all want liberty and we want our rules followed. I think we're ready to stand together and fight for that.

KEITH: After the event, Cruz talked with reporters and was asked the obvious question: What are you doing in Iowa? Cruz's answer: He was invited. Asked more bluntly, as he was leaving, whether he was laying the groundwork for a presidential run, Cruz looked at the reporter and just kept walking. Dennis Goldford is a professor of politics as Drake University in Des Moines.

DENNIS GOLDFORD: Nobody comes to Iowa for the weather.

KEITH: The high in Des Moines today is about 30 degrees colder than the forecast for Austin.

GOLDFORD: Now, we have pretty good food and Iowans are very nice people, but you're always suspicious when potential presidential candidates show up in the state of Iowa.

KEITH: It's too early to admit presidential ambitions, but John Stineman says it isn't too early to visit. He's a public affairs consultant with deep roots in Iowan Republican politics.

JOHN STINEMAN: Any candidate will come during the 14 cycle to help raise money, and that's how they start to plant seeds. And so he's doing all the things that a prospective candidate does.

KEITH: Cruz encouraged everyone in the audience to get out their cell phones and text in their support, building a database of supporters and potential donors that could come in handy if he decides to run for president in 2016. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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