I called it a coming attack in the headline but maybe it’s already here. I noticed Cruz attacking Trump as a fake conservative over the weekend but didn’t notice him drilling down on Trump as a fake populist. Did I miss it? If it hasn’t happened yet, don’t worry. It will soon.

What got me thinking about this was Stephanopoulos asking Trump at the start of the clip I posted earlier whether it’s now a two-man race between him and Cruz. Trump’s answer: No, which is surprising given that he had talked about a developing two-man race less than a month ago on “Meet the Press.” Nothing’s changed in the polls since then to challenge that; on the contrary, Cruz has inched a bit higher while Rubio and the rest of the center-right candidates have remained flat. It’s more of a two-man race now than it was in December. Why won’t Trump acknowledge that? Partly, of course, it’s to diminish Cruz, but I wonder if it’s also part of a strategy to use Rubio to drag Cruz down. Whenever Trump talks about Cruz and immigration, he tends to lump him in with Rubio as both being weak on amnesty. (“Him and Marco Rubio have been fighting about who’s weaker.”) That’s a hard knock on Cruz given how big a problem immigration is for Rubio. When he was asked yesterday about whether Rubio might have his own eligibility problem because he was born in the U.S. to non-citizen parents — something that the strictest interpretations of birthright citizenship would say renders him ineligible — Trump surprisingly said no, distinguishing Rubio on grounds that, unlike Cruz, he really was born here.

Combine that with Trump’s relentless attacks on Cruz this weekend as being bought and sold by mega-rich interests like Goldman Sachs, an argument he’s used before on Rubio, and you can see the strategy emerge. Trump’s going to try to undermine Cruz on the right by portraying him as another Rubio, albeit with a weaker eligibility claim than Rubio has. Which, in fairness, is a smart play. The reason Cruz fans prefer him to Rubio is because they see him as more conservative, especially on immigration, and much, much more populist. Trump’s trying to call both of those credentials into question, which won’t work with hardcore Cruz fans but might raise an eyebrow among late-deciders in Iowa who are trying to decide between Cruz and Trump. If Cruz is just another Rubio, with bankers in his hip pocket, a questionable commitment to deporting illegals, and an eligibility issue to boot, why shouldn’t they go for Trump instead?

If Cruz wants to beat that, he needs to counterattack the same way. Calling Trump out as a fake conservative is job one, particularly for the benefit of late deciders in states with conservative GOP electorates like Iowa and the south. But that argument alone won’t do it. Plenty of Trump fans know all about his ideological travels; others may not know about it yet, but, not being very conservative themselves, won’t care when they finally find out. (Trump, wisely, noted Ronald Reagan’s journey from Democrat to Republican when asked about that this morning on Fox News.) If you want to kill Trump, you have to undercut his populist credentials. So long as he’s the supposed voice of the little guy, he’s a threat to win. Liam Donovan wrote a smart post about that this weekend to try to counter the idea that Trump is invincible. He’s not invincible, says Donovan. He simply hasn’t been hit hard yet because no one’s gone after his core strength, which is populism:

So how do you chip away at this rapport [with blue-collar voters]? You start by shattering the illusion that Trump is a friend of the little guy. To his credit, Trump possesses an uncanny ability to perceive, identify, and harness the wants and needs of the average Joe. The problem is that Trump takes this unique insight into the working class and exploits it for his own gain…

The bottom line is that you need to disabuse people of the notion that Trump is on their side. This is a con, and we are the collective mark. You do this by exposing his penchant for screwing over the little people- whether via Trump U, the Polish Brigade, Atlantic City, Kelo, or even H-2B visas, just pick your poison.

The key to this approach is not to explain, but to illustrate. Let the images speak for themselves- make it not about the issues, but about the people. Vera Coking and Wojciech Kozak need to be household names. If they aren’t in the spring, I can guarantee you they will be by the fall. Because if Republicans don’t step up and beat him themselves, the Clinton attacks on Trump will make Obama’s Romney playbook appear low energy by comparison.

Trump’s gift is his common touch, which is why he never has to put up with the “rich guy” crap that Romney did despite being worth many times what Romney is. Call his common touch into question among undecideds and the Trump engine breaks down. Given the available evidence, Cruz has a better shot of convincing Republican voters that Trump is a fake populist than Trump does of convincing them that Cruz is some sort of fake conservative.

As I say, this attack is coming soon from Cruz himself, certainly no later than the debate in Iowa on January 28th. (The “New York values” critique was a shot at Trump’s populism, not just his liberalism, but only obliquely.) Probably he’ll claim that Trump and Rubio have formed an informal alliance to attack him for their mutual benefit (which isn’t necessarily untrue), as that way he gets to use the same “tar the other guy with Rubio comparisons” move among his own supporters as Trump’s being using on Cruz with his. Look around conservative media and you’ll already find Cruz fans starting to push arguments against Trump’s populist cred. Here’s something Cruz fans were buzzing about on social media this weekend and which Cruz himself will be talking up eventually:

The developing feeling among House Republicans? Donald Trump is preferable to Ted Cruz.

“If you look at Trump’s actual policies, they’re pretty thin. There’s not a lot of meat there,” says one Republican member in Ryan’s inner circle, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the two front-runners as leadership has carefully avoided doing all week. If Trump were to get the nomination, he would “be looking to answer the question: ‘Where’s the beef?’ And we will have that for him,” says the member.

Paul Ryan’s House Republican caucus wants President Trump because he’ll be easier to influence, huh? Here’s a telling headline from the Right Scoop that also anticipates how Team Cruz will answer Trump’s latest attacks:

rs

That criticism, that Trump is trying to use Cruz’s unpopularity with the hated GOP establishment as a knock against him, was also made by Mark Levin last month after Trump called Cruz a “maniac” for alienating his fellow senators. Levin hit Trump among similar lines this weekend, claiming that Trump is behaving like Mitch McConnell in attacking Cruz’s reputation. How can Trump be one of the populist good guys when he sounds like a Beltway bad guy?

This tweet, though, from radio talker and Cruz supporter Steve Deace, is my favorite shot at Trump so far:

I’d be surprised if Team Mitt decided to take a side in the Trump/Cruz war, but of course it’s to Cruz’s benefit for his fans to think that’s happening. Apart from John McCain endorsing Trump, what better way could there be to get populists questioning Trump than by hinting that the Romney braintrust is increasingly warm to him?

Via the Daily Rushbo, here’s Rush Limbaugh from the first hour of today’s show arguing that Trump’s making a mistake by attacking Cruz as a nasty guy. That’s significant, not because it’s an attack on Trump’s populism but because conservative talk radio (apart from Glenn Beck) has been conspicuously warm to Trump’s candidacy until now. If righty populists start smacking Trump for whatever reason, obviously that’s going to give their populist listeners pause. Exit question: Cruz spent the last six months insisting he’s glad that Trump ran this year because it crystallized how angry voters were at D.C. insiders. Trumpmania was the lightning rod for populist anger. How does he turn around now and claim that, oh, by the way, Trump’s sort of an insider himself?