Throughout the Republican presidential primary, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has studiously avoided conflict with the combative frontrunner Donald Trump. He has repeatedly declined to criticize Trump’s most controversial claims and proposals, typically only saying that he “disagrees” with him if he’s pressed.
However, with Cruz making a run at Trump in the polls, it looks as though The Donald may be getting ready to use an ill-considered comment the Texas senator made in a private meeting with supporters as an excuse to go on the attack.
Trump has often claimed that he is only a “counterpuncher,” meaning that he doesn’t attack other candidates unless they attack him first. It’s largely, if not completely, true. If Trump wants to maintain that position, he can’t go to war with Cruz without provocation.
On Friday, it looked as though a New York Times story recounting a meeting between Cruz and his donors might have provided Trump with the Tonkin Gulf incident he needs to launch the Trump-Cruz war.
In the Wednesday meeting in New York, Cruz discussed Trump and another leading candidate, Ben Carson. “Both of them I like and respect,” Cruz said. “I don’t believe either one of them is going to be our president.”
Cruz said that recent terror attacks have caused voters to look more seriously at candidates’ capacity to serve as commander-in-chief and their ability to understand and address the threats facing the country.
On the topic of Trump and Carson, he said, “Who am I comfortable having their finger on the button? Now that’s a question of strength, but it’s also a question of judgment. And I think that is a question that is a challenging question for both of them.”
Cruz explained that he has been reluctant to attack either Trump or Cruz because, in effect, he believes they will flame out and that their supporters will come over to him.
“So my approach, much to the frustration of the media, has been to bear hug both of them, and smother them with love,” he told his audience. “People run as who they are. I believe gravity will bring both of those campaigns down” and “the lion’s share of their supporters come to us.”
Cruz’s campaign challenged the Times story at first, but the senator’s claim that it was misleading fell apart when it was revealed that the newspaper had a recording of Cruz making those remarks.
That Cruz bothered pushing back at all shows just how cautious he has been about handling Trump. By campaign standards, criticizing your rival by saying it will be a “challenge” to prove he or she would be a capable commander-in-chief is pretty weak tea.
But if Trump needed an excuse to lash out at the candidate who has shown the most upward movement in the polls recently, Cruz’s comment would serve as well as anything else.
On Thursday night, Trump’s campaign began responding. Senior advisor Dan Scavino said of Cruz on Twitter: “his true colors shine behind the scenes - at a private fundraiser.”
By Friday morning, Trump himself was in on the act, first tweeting out, “Looks like @tedcruz is getting ready to attack. I am leading by so much he must. I hope so, he will fall like all others. Will be easy!”
Shortly afterward, he added, “@tedcruz should not make statements behind closed doors to his bosses, he should bring them out into the open - more fun that way!”
Whether he will continue going after Cruz is unclear, but it’s probably no mistake that Trump took his first few swipes at the senator just a few hours before he would speak at a big campaign rally in the key early voting state of Iowa.
Cruz has been surging in the Midwestern state, where many white evangelical Protestants are receptive to his message. One recent poll had him leading Trump for the first time.
If he gets pulled into a fight with Trump, it’s not clear how Cruz would respond or how effective Trump’s typical tactics – personal insults and sarcasm – will do I Iowa. But at least one analyst believes Cruz may have less to lose than he thinks.
“What’s interesting is that Cruz has just been assuming that he will inherit the lion’s share of Trump’s support, and I’m not sure that true,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“Trump’s support is very hard to categorize,” he said. “If Trump were to get out, his supporters are ideologically across the map, so you would assume that to the extent his supporters might show up and vote, they could be split six different ways.”
The problem for Cruz, said Kondik, is that gaming out a race with more than a dozen candidates is ridiculously complicated.
“I understand that Cruz doesn’t want to alienate Trump’s supporters, but if Cruz doesn’t help defeat Trump, then maybe Trump does better than Cruz, and then Cruz has done nothing to halt the momentum of a candidate who could prevent him from winning.
“All the candidates sort of recognize that if you knock down Trump it may help a candidate other than themselves. It’s this weird game theory race. In a two-person race, it’s a zero-sum game. But not in a 14-person race.”