They’re framing this, cleverly, in Trumpian terms. Trump likes to say that he never attacks, he only counterpunches. A man who attacks without provocation is a bully; a man who counterpunches is simply defending himself. We’re the ones counterpunching now, though, says Team Cruz. It was Trump who hit us below the belt by attacking Cruz’s eligibility. The bully wanted a fight and now he’s got one.

Buckle up.

“If Donald wants to have honest, open policy contrasts, we’re ready for that,” campaign chairman Chad Sweet said. “If, on the other hand, he’s going to engage in discussions over nonsensical issues, over birther issues or who’s the real evangelical—which, by the way, someone from his background should be careful about questioning the faith of our candidate,” something Trump has also done recently.

Asked what he meant by Trump’s “background,” Sweet continued, referencing a Trump appearance at a cattle call in Iowa last summer. “I think it’s interesting that Trump … basically said at [a] family values forum he’s never asked for forgiveness, but yet he is Christian. I would ask most Christians the question, ‘What is the first thing you do to become a Christian?’ Christians know what the answer to that question is.”…

“A thrice-married man is going to come into South Carolina expecting to be the Republican nominee?” [Charlie] Condon asked incredulously. “He’s pro-choice. He’s pro- gay marriage. He’s against traditional values. He’s New York, and he’s got to talk about that.”

Newt Gingrich was “thrice-married” when he won South Carolina in 2012 but Gingrich’s conservative record is a bit sturdier than Trump’s is. Million-dollar question, then: Why now? Cruz has spent six months scrupulously avoiding perceptions of conflict with Trump in order to stay on the good side of Trump fans. His spokesman tells Politico that they think they can maintain their second-choice status among Trumpers based on the fact that it was Trump who started this, not Cruz. I don’t know — attacking him as a pro-abortion, pro-SSM phony Christian is about as rough as it gets in a primary. There won’t be many Trump fans shifting from Cruz to Rubio as a second choice, I assume, but there may be some who, when the dust settles, decide that they’d rather stay home now if Trump’s not the nominee than go to bat for Cruz.

I think Matt Lewis is right that this is more a matter of timing than anything else. Cruz sat back for months on end waiting for Trump to fade and for his fans to stampede over into Camp Cruz when he did. It didn’t happen. Now he has to choose: Continue to hold his fire and risk losing Iowa, which may ruin Cruz’s chances at the nomination and render the “second choice” issue moot, or throw the kitchen sink at Trump and hope that Trump fans forgive him for it later this spring? (If and when Trump fades, Cruz’s conciliatory charm offensive towards Trump and his fans will, I assume, be completely, obsequiously insufferable.) He can’t afford to hold back any longer now that Iowans are starting to make up their minds. At least if he loses he can tell himself that he left it all on the field. Imagine if he had continued to hug Trump and ended up in second place because of it.

There’s some truth to this too:

Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Lindsey Graham hit Trump repeatedly when they were polling a combined three or four percent in the polls. It was a plea for attention and may have been seen as desperate by voters. Cruz is strong enough in Iowa and elsewhere that he can do it without fear of being accused of a publicity stunt. He’s attacking Trump alpha to alpha. I wonder if, a few months from now, Trump will look back and wonder why he didn’t start attacking Cruz much earlier, explicitly in terms of his beta-male toadying. Oh well.

Exit question: Will this start a pile-on of Trump among the rest of the field? So long as Cruz (and Jeb Bush) are taking the brunt of Trump’s wrath, there’s really no reason for Rubio not to join in. Via BuzzFeed, Rand Paul is now saying things like “my every waking hour is to try to stop Donald Trump from being our nominee.” That’s a sentiment widely shared among Republican pols.

Update: A provocative point.

If Mr. Conservative had been leading the “Trump’s a liberal” chorus from the beginning, would Rush and the rest of conservative talk radio have been as quick to legitimize Trump as a voice of the people?