The battle for the White House that has entertained, outraged and baffled Americans for the past year is about to get real.
With the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary quickly approaching, a presidential race that has largely unfolded on television screens, debate stages, packed rallies and a slew of polls is now shifting into a serious test of political endurance.
"There is a very good possibility that the Republican primary will be decided by the end of March," Sen. Ted Cruz said during a New Year's Eve conference call, putting supporters of his fast-rising campaign on notice for a "90-day sprint to get the job done."
Once a long shot, Cruz has prospered from tight self-discipline on the stump, an authentic conservative message and a reputation for throwing wrenches in the works in Washington that antagonize party elites but delight the restive grass roots.
"He had a very narrow window -- now he has got one of the best shots to win it," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.