Bromance on the Rocks

Bromance on the Rocks: Surging Ted Cruz Begins to Poke Donald Trump

The Texas senator makes his move against the Republican front-runner less than 10 weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

Al Hunt: Cruz Is Leading Contender to Slay ‘The Donald’

Ted Cruz's moment has arrived.

Less than 10 weeks before Iowa voters cast the first votes of the presidential campaign season in Feb. 1 caucuses, a new Quinnipiac poll shows the Texas senator statistically tied with Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump for the lead in the state. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Cruz is tentatively beginning to take on the brash New York billionaire after months of cozying up. 

Twice in recent days, the Texan has seized opportunities to distance himself from Trump's policies and rhetoric.

First, Cruz disagreed with Trump after the New Yorker expressed openness to setting up a registry of Muslim Americans in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. “I'm a big fan of Donald Trump's but I'm not a fan of government registries of American citizens,” Cruz told reporters in Iowa, according to Politico. “The First Amendment protects religious liberty, I've spent the past several decades defending religious liberty.”

Then over the weekend, he politely chided inflammatory rhetoric from fellow Republicans on immigration, when asked about Trump during an interview with the Associated Press. “Tone matters,” Cruz said. “Are there some in the Republican Party whose rhetoric is unhelpful with regard to immigration? Yes.”

Cruz's campaign said to expect more distinctions to come.

“Senator Cruz has drawn policy contrasts with his opponents before and he will continue to do so as he shares his own record and positions with voters on the campaign trail,” said Catherine Frazier, Cruz's spokeswoman. “As the field continues to narrow, it's only natural that the contrasts between the front runners will become more evident.”

The contrast-drawing follows an unusual summer and fall bromance between Trump and Cruz that included a July meeting at Trump Tower in New York, instigated by the Texan, and a September rally on Capitol Hill headlined by the two Republican candidates. On Oct. 8, Cruz admitted his strategy was to eventually win over Trump's supporters. “In time, I don't believe Donald is going to be the nominee, and I think in time the lion's share of his supporters end up with us,” he told WABC's Rita Cosby.

Trump's persistent national lead since July, defying a steady stream of predictions about an impending implosion, has forced a strategic shift for Cruz. The Texan is looking to capitalize as he rises to the top tier of the GOP race and as former Iowa front-runner Ben Carson sinks under scrutiny. The new Quinnipiac poll of Iowa Republicans, released Tuesday, found Trump at 25 percent, with Cruz at 23 percent—a 2 percentage point gap that is inside the survey's margin of error. Carson was third in the Quinnipiac poll with 18 percent.

“Ted Cruz should be taken very seriously. He's laid out a very well thought-out grassroots and fundraising network across the country. He's been very strategic in his timing,” said Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican operative who is not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns.

For Cruz, Trump presents an obstacle and an opportunity. The politically incorrect New Yorker has been outperforming the Texas firebrand at his own greatest talent: deploying scorched-earth rhetoric to channel the anti-establishment sentiments in the GOP. But Trump's bravado gives Cruz a chance to paint himself as something nobody in Washington would accuse him of being: prudent and measured.

“There is massive irony here for Ted Cruz to be asking Donald Trump to tone it down,” said Bonjean. “He's trying to look like the most adult candidate in the room—the most realistic alternative that could take away Trump voters.”

The irony is that Cruz has built an image upon angering Republican leaders with tactics like incubating the government shutdown of 2013, forcing weekend work as he makes a stand, and calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar on the floor this summer. It has been a tactical use of his Senate seat, Bonjean said, that has enabled Cruz to cultivate his conservative base and that now positions him to seize his political advantage. “He has built a foundation brick by brick for this moment.”

The appeal of Cruz is straightforward: he's a crusader for Tea Party and evangelical Christian causes with the scars to show for smashing fists with a Republican Party leadership that is increasingly disliked by the base. And he has an unusually large war chest for a non-establishment figure—$26.5 million as of his third quarter filing with the Federal Election Commission, along with $37.8 million as of June 30 by a quartet of super-PACs supporting him—towering over the fundraising of past Iowa caucus winners Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who are running again and trying to appeal to the same conservative base.

Meanwhile, Cruz is battling on a second front with presidential rival and fellow Senator Marco Rubio, seeking to cast the Floridian as an establishment-friendly foil to his insurgent persona. The two first-term senators, who have been neck and neck for third place in an average of national polls, are duking it out over Rubio's support for immigration reform in 2013 and Cruz's vote this year to curtail the government's bulk collection of Americans' phone data. In his effort to seize the title of the standard-bearer on the immigration issue over Trump, Cruz recently won a significant victory when he got the endorsement of Representative Steve King, the senior Republican from Iowa in the U.S. House and an outspoken immigration hawk.

“The complexity of what goes on here in Washington is something that Senator Cruz understands significantly better than the people that are identified as outsider candidates,” King said. “Yet no one views Ted Cruz as an insider in Washington.”

Bonjean said Cruz is “trying to do is marginalize Trump with Republican primary voters—very subtly—without tripping the wire of having Trump go nuts on him.”

Meanwhile, Trump has suggested Cruz is copying his ideas, telling conservative radio host Laura Ingraham last week that “Ted Cruz is now agreeing with me 100 percent.” The confrontational New Yorker has also indicated he'll take the gloves off if Cruz becomes a threat to his nomination.

“If he catches on, I guess we’ll have to go to war,” Trump said last Monday on CNBC's Squawk Box.

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