An eventual Cruz vs. Trump "war," to use the latter's term, became inevitable as soon as the Texan emerged as an undeniable threat to The Donald's ambitions. But did anyone expect that Cruz, who's tied himself in knots to avoid criticizing Trump publicly, would fire the first clear shot? Or did he? Here's the New York Times report:
Senator Ted Cruz raised questions on Wednesday at a private fund-raiser about whether Donald J. Trump, his bombastic rival for the Republican presidential nomination, has the “judgment” to be president and mused about “strength,” according to two people who attended the event in Manhattan. The remarks from Mr. Cruz came as he has studiously avoided public criticism of Mr. Trump, who is handily beating the rest of the Republican field in opinion polls...But inside a conference room in a Madison Avenue office, with about 70 people pressed around a table, Mr. Cruz gave a candid assessment of the race, lumping Mr. Trump with another candidate whose supporters the Texas senator hopes to poach, Ben Carson, according to two people present for the remarks. “Both of them I like and respect,” said Mr. Cruz, according to one attendee, who requested anonymity to describe what happened at a private event. “I don’t believe either one of them is going to be our president.” Mr. Cruz described both campaigns as having a “natural arch” with gravity “pulling them down” now. Mr. Carson’s descent, he added, has been faster. But he added, according to a second attendee, “You look at Paris, you look at San Bernardino, it’s given a seriousness to this race, that people are looking for: Who is prepared to be a commander in chief? Who understands the threats we face?” He went on: “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 neither confirmed nor denied making these statements, but his campaign tweeted this, weirdly accusing the Times of being "misleading:"
Cruz goes after NYT for suggesting he criticized Trump pic.twitter.com/XDCx0Ue9ge— Betsy Woodruff (@woodruffbets) December 10, 2015
That reads like an admission that yes, Cruz did say what the Times is reporting (based on two attendees' accounts), followed by a grumble over the paper overplaying the Trump criticism angle. Not sure if that technically counts as misleading, but that's rhetorical hair-splitting. Cruz has evidently questioned Trump's fitness and judgment to have his "finger on the button," and rightfully so. As I've argued, many conservatives believe Trump lacks the character, temperament and knowledge to be an acceptable nominee, let alone President of the United States. Cruz sounds inclined to agree, at least on some level. Now the question becomes how Trump responds. He never seems to let a real or imagined slight slide without retaliation, so it'll be interesting to see if the Cruz camp's squeamish quasi-denial is a sufficient fig leaf to fend off a tough Trump counter-punch. One can imagine Trump ripping Cruz for kowtowing to big donors (the billionaire loves telling voters that he's self-funding, even though he really isn't), taking a potshot at Cruz's judgment over a "failed shutdown" or some such -- and maybe asking why straight-talkin' Cruz would be willing to attack him behind closed doors while raising cash, but not in front of the cameras.
For now, it's in Cruz's interests to keep playing nice with Trump; his trajectory is healthier than any of his competitors' right now, and he's angling to inherit Trump's supporters if and when the mogul finally sputters and fades (which Cruz has said he expects to happen). But let's say February or March rolls around with Trump showing no signs of slowing. At what point does Cruz decide he has no choice but to prosecute a case against Trump? Keep in mind that despite his recent surge, Cruz's numbers are still less than half of Trump's level of support in the new NYT/CBS poll (which also shows that nearly two-thirds of general election voters are either concerned or frightened by the prospect of a Trump presidency, by the way). Cruz is a sharp thinker and a skilled debater; he'll cross the bridge if it becomes necessary, and he'll be prepared with a plan. For now, he must be pleased with where his campaign sits, having just picked up an expected but significant Iowa endorsement today.
I'll leave you with two GOP primary thoughts: (1) Jeb Bush's Super PAC has reportedly burned through half of its once-intimidating $100 million fundraising haul. Their commercials have been everywhere, both positive and negative. How that ROI looking? Brutal. Jeb is flatly stating that Republicans will lose if Trump is the Republican nominee, and many people agree. But doesn't every minute he stays in the race benefit Trump? Especially if his allies are running ads hitting Rubio and Cruz? (2) Here's Sean Trende building the case that it's entirely possible that no one will enter the GOP convention with the nomination sewn up:
My most likely scenario is still that no one wins a sufficient number of delegates to claim the nomination. As Nate Silver lays it out, this comes in three different “flavors”: (1) No one wins, but someone is close enough that the writing is on the wall; (2) no one wins, but things get sorted out at the convention; (3) no one wins, and it is fought out on the convention floor. I agree with Silver that these are presented in decreasing order of likelihood, and actually put the overall percentages lower than he did (and lower than I did last winter). But I still think there’s a very good chance this happens, for a lot of the reasons I wrote about in January. It’s a deep field, without an overall frontrunner; super PACs can keep candidates standing past their normal expiration date; and (perhaps most importantly) the calendar creates incentives for candidates to stay in as long as they can.
This isn't an outlandish possibility. The Washington Post is reporting that top Republicans have begun seriously discussing the potential eventuality of a brokered convention. A private dinner among party insiders this week focused on the increasing likelihood of this scenario, which the Post says, "marks the close of a months-long chapter in the campaign when a brokered convention was considered a fanciful concept rather than a possibility that merited serious review by the party’s top leaders." Buckle up.