TUSCALOOSA, Alabama—Four days after Donald Trump drew tens of thousands of supporters to a modest, multipurpose football arena in this state, Ted Cruz stood 200 miles away inside a glass-enclosed suite overlooking the north end zone inside legendary Denny-Bryant Stadium. Here, in the home of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Cruz offered blistering critiques identical to those delivered by Trump—a nation in decline, an immigration crisis, a government corrupted by career politicians in both parties.
Yet Cruz, speaking to several hundred suit-and-tie Republicans at a plated dinner, offered key distinctions of style and substance. In a rhetorical routine perfected in Ivy League debate competitions and arguments before the Supreme Court, Cruz told his audience to beware of “campaign conservatives” who “talk a good game” while running for office. It’s not enough to diagnose the problems ailing America; Republicans can only win, Cruz said, if they nominate “a consistent conservative” with a proven track record.
It wasn’t difficult, on the heels of a Trump event that left the state buzzing, for attendees to pick up the message Cruz was laying down: It’s great that Trump is exciting the electorate and drawing voters’ attention to conservative causes. Just don’t expect those causes to be championed by a candidate who long supported liberal politices before making a recent conversion to conservatism.
“Trump’s message is resonating with people. They’re upset about a lot of things, and he expresses the frustration they feel. But if they examine his stances on a whole range of issues, they’d find they are in disagreement with him,” said Bill Stewart, the retired chairman of Alabama’s political-science department, who sat in on Cruz’s speech. “In the end, I think Trump will have generated the interest—and then Cruz will benefit from it.”
This is precisely the endgame that Cruz and his team now visualize. It explains why Cruz has cozied up to Trump at a time when most of the Republican political class shunned him. It explains why the Texas senator refuses to utter a negative word about the real-estate mogul. And it explains why Cruz is stalking Trump—if not geographically (the Alabama trips were coincidence) then ideologically and rhetorically, making sure the two stay in lockstep on issues of the day so that voters who are energized by Trump’s message but looking for a more polished messenger discover a natural transition to Cruz.
From the top down, in fact, Cruz’s campaign has come to view Trump as an asset. Equipped with universal name-identification and celebrity appeal, Trump has a megaphone that Cruz could never dream of—even from his perch in Congress—to preach a fiery populism to angry voters. He has demonstrated a unique ability to galvanize conservatives (Cruz’s base) and steer the 2016 conversation toward subjects like illegal immigration (Cruz’s wheelhouse) that may otherwise have been secondary.
“The media dismissed illegal immigration as a problem, and because of Donald Trump they’re actually talking about illegal immigration. I think that is very beneficial to our campaign,” Cruz told me after the event in Tuscaloosa. “Because once the conversation shifts to illegal immigration, the discussion naturally turns to ‘What is the record of the different candidates when it comes to standing up and fighting to stop illegal immigration?’ I’ve been leading the fight to stop illegal immigration—and my record is markedly different from other Republican candidates in that regard.”
Or, as one Cruz adviser put it: “Without Trump in the race, we’d be having a nice debate over tax policy right now. Instead we’re talking about ‘anchor babies.’”
Riding in a rented Chevy Equinox along Interstate-20 from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, Cruz repeatedly declined to say whether Trump was one such GOP rival he had differences with. He said there are “seasons to a campaign” and hinted that he would soon be adopting a more aggressive approach in drawing contrasts with his opponents. But Cruz made it clear that he won’t be picking a fight with Trump anytime soon.
“Many of the Republican candidates have gone out of their way to take a two-by-four to Donald Trump,” Cruz said, smiling. “I think that’s a mistake.”
IN THE COURSE of an hourlong conversation, Cruz refused at least five opportunities to offer any policy distinction with Trump. Sipping black-raspberry-flavored sparkling water and wearing glasses after a long day on the trail, Cruz appeared fatigued but also wary of going off-message when it came to questions about the man he now sometimes refers to simply as “Donald.”
The closest thing to a critique came when I asked Cruz whether he agreed that Trump has “leverage” over the GOP. “I don’t know. I am grateful he is focusing the media’s attention on illegal immigration, and I’m grateful he’s causing more and more people to pay attention to this race,” Cruz said. “I also believe at the end of the day, that Republican primary voters are going to look for a consistent conservative, someone who has walked the walk—who has been a fiscal conservative, a social conservative, a national security conservative, and who has the record to demonstrate that consistency.”
The Cruz camp is confident that Trump’s candidacy will have a natural arc, that eventually political gravity will pull his numbers down, and that when it happens, Cruz will be ideally positioned to absorb his current supporters.
Yet the senator did not hesitate to comment on other primary opponents—Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush—that he differs with on immigration, among other issues. (In the ultimate backhanded compliment, Cruz said of Bush: “I will commend him for his candor. He has been quite explicit embracing positions on amnesty, on Common Core, that are markedly out of step with where Republican primary voters are.”)
Asked about the inconsistency of making those remarks about Bush while insisting that it’s presently inappropriate to comment on Trump, Cruz took a long pause. “There will come a time as the campaign moves forward when additional policy differences may well be merited,” he said. “I don’t believe we’re in that phase of the campaign.”
Cruz admitted that he has “bent over backwards” to avoid insulting Trump. Asked for an explanation, the senator avoided any talk of strategy and instead pointed to the people behind this summer’s Trump phenomenon.
“Donald Trump is attracting significant crowds and significant passion of people who are ticked off at Washington and fed up with politicians who say one thing and do another. I don’t think it’s beneficial when those politicians deride those people as ‘crazies,’” Cruz said, referencing a remark made by Sen. John McCain. “I’d like for every one of those people to show up in November 2016 and be knocking on doors and making phone calls and sending emails.”
It’s a valid point, especially from a candidate who argues regularly that the McCain and Mitt Romney lost in 2008 and 2012 because they did not energize the base. Now that Trump appears to be doing just that, Cruz advisers feel strongly that an attack on Trump is tantamount to an attack on the people at his rallies.
But there’s a simpler explanation for why Cruz isn’t attacking Trump: He doesn’t think he needs to.
The Cruz camp is confident that Trump’s candidacy will have a natural arc, that eventually political gravity will pull his numbers down, and that when it happens, Cruz will be ideally positioned to absorb his current supporters. In the meantime, Trump will sustain plenty of attacks from other opponents. And as an added bonus for Cruz’s hands-off approach, Trump is doing his dirty work. The real-estate mogul has been especially harsh lately on Scott Walker, long considered by Cruz’s camp to be their most direct competition in Iowa because of his appeal to both evangelicals and tea-partiers.
Most consequentially, Cruz allies see Trump on a collision course with Bush—especially in New Hampshire, the state Bush needs to win and where Trump’s numbers and organization are strongest—and predict that “Armageddon” between those two candidates would greatly weaken both the establishment favorite and the anti-establishment front-runner.
There is a downside to Trump’s candidacy, of course. Cruz understands that Trump is denying him political oxygen at the moment, and is making the senator’s stated goal—uniting the conservative vote in order to eventually defeat Bush or whoever consolidates the moderate vote—considerably harder. But Cruz and his team have concluded that an alliance with Trump is not only smart, but necessary, in this game of political survivor.
“I don’t think they see each other as rivals at this point. I think they’re allies, actually,” said Brent Bozell, the prominent conservative activist who endorsed Cruz last month. “Now at the end of the day, this thing is going to get winnowed down. And it’s like two friends who are heavyweight boxers: If they end up No. 1 and No. 2, of course they’re going to duke it out.”
CRUZ’S INNER CIRCLE doesn’t foresee any such a scenario, because they simply do not see an organization to harness the energy Trump is generating on the stump.
Part of their calculus in taking a hands-off approach to Trump is that his massive crowds and wall-to-wall media coverage has not translated into a strong grassroots presence needed to compete in the early primary states. This was visible last week, Cruz advisers pointed out, when a handful of candidates showed up for an event in South Carolina. Virtually every GOP contender, including those not present, had volunteers there holding up signs and handing out literature—and there wasn’t a single piece of Trump signage to be seen or found.
Cruz lags far behind Trump in terms of national name-identification, but he has no shortage of grassroots support in the early states. His “Rally for Religious Liberty” in Des Moines last week drew upwards of 2,500 people attending the event, making it one of the largest political events in Iowa this year.
“A lot of people will come to watch Donald Trump rant and rave. I don’t know how many of those people will come out when it’s cold as a witch’s tit on a February night to a church or high school to vote,” said Steve Deace, a conservative Iowa radio host who endorsed Cruz last week and then emceed the Des Moines event. “I know this: Every one of those 3,000 people Cruz drew to his rally on Friday, every single one of those people is going to caucus.”
This explains why, despite Trump overshadowing the race this summer, Cruz views his path to victory as essentially unchanged since launching his campaign in March at Liberty University.
The senator has always envisioned consolidating the evangelical and tea-party wings of the GOP behind his campaign, armed with an uncompromising record on the core issues that appeal to both. Not only do Cruz allies believe Trump will struggle to convert admirers into voters; they think his record, once scrutinized, will repel those conservative voters currently supporting him.
Cruz and his allies predict that, come fall, Cruz will begin to reap the anti-establishment sentiment sewn by the Summer of Trump, especially in Iowa. The evangelical lane there is crowded, but Cruz’s next battle—a bloody fight next month over defunding Planned Parenthood that could lead to another government shutdown—is an opportunity for the senator to set himself apart.
Another key component of Cruz’s strategy has been to win endorsements from conservative leaders, in theory producing a trickle-down effect that, when paired with Cruz’s own grassroots organizing, would produce a “unified movement” behind him. The early endorsements of Bozell and Deace could foreshadow bigger catches to come. Indeed, there is mounting speculation within the conservative movement that several major players are poised to line up behind Cruz this fall. Nationally, the biggest target is Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. And in Iowa, all eyes are on two people: evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats and Rep. Steve King, whose two closest political lieutenants, including his son, Jeff, both recently signed on with a pro-Cruz super PAC.
Cruz is thought to be the favorite of both kingmakers. Trump, on the other hand isn’t likely to receive consideration from either—yet another reason for Cruz to hold his fire on Trump. “If they both endorse Cruz, he’s going to win Iowa,” Deace said of King and Vander Plaats. “Guaranteed.”
Meanwhile, back in Alabama Tuesday night, Cruz was working on another endorsement. Mo Brooks, the conservative congressman who has allied himself with Cruz and King against immigration-reform efforts, was honored by the Tuscaloosa County GOP’s Republican of the Year. The two lawmakers shared the stage and traded flatteries before a dark-red audience that appeared enamored of both.
Brooks told me afterward he hasn’t made up his mind whom to endorse—despite comparing Cruz to Ronald Reagan—and admitted he has been captivated by the Trump phenomenon.
“Hyperbole is a very important part of politics. And Donald Trump, to his credit, is a master of hyperbole,” Brooks said. “He has celebrity status, and people flock to see celebrities. But as time goes by, people will look closer at a candidate’s history. And Ted Cruz has a track record.”