Via Politico, skip to 12:00 of the clip below for the key bit. Oh, it’s on. Or is it? Normally, a candidate for president claiming that he’s going to peel away his opponents’ supporters and win the nomination would be so banal that it wouldn’t qualify as news. It’s the ultimate “dog bites man” story. Of course Cruz believes this. If he didn’t, why would he be running? But these aren’t normal circumstances. Cruz is the only Republican in the field who has yet to utter a critical or discouraging syllable about Trump, part of his talk-radio-ish strategy not to say or do anything that might annoy the many newly minted Trump fans in the GOP base. But now he has, and Trump being as thin-skinned as he is, there’s no telling whether he’ll shrug this off as a routine expression of confidence by an opponent or some sort of attack that warrants dismissing Cruz as an ineffectual loser who’s probably not eligible to be president in the first place.
The question is why, after having steered so far clear of criticizing Trump to this point, Cruz has suddenly allowed himself to talk openly about picking up Trump’s voters once they realize who’s done the most in the field to stand up to Washington. I think Peggy Noonan’s got the answer:
[Trump] continues with high negatives. But for all the dopey, damaging dramas he’s gotten himself into the past few months he’s maintained his position. Imagine if he’d been disciplined.
The first act was “I’m Here and I’m Yuge.” Now Act II: “I Mean It and I’m Staying.”…
The wisdom now, and it’s not stupid, is that as time passes the field will narrow. More candidates will drop out, voters will begin to coalesce behind other front-runners, and suddenly one of them will be polling at 27% or 32%. Various powers will throw their weight behind front-runner No. 2 or 3 or 4. But this year has reminded us to expect the unexpected. Maybe not enough candidates will drop out to make a difference. Maybe the splintered field stays splintered. How then do you stop Mr. Trump? Maybe—again—only Trump stops Trump.
Yeah, the lesson of the last three weeks of polling is that while Trump is no longer rising, he’s not falling much either. He’s still in the mid- to high 20s after a pre-debate high in some polls in the low 30s, but that’s been good for first place in every national poll save one. Cruz may have been expecting the Trump fade to have begun by now, freeing up lots of disaffected anti-establishment voters just in time for a Cruz-led challenge to Obama this month over the debt ceiling. Hasn’t happened. This floor speech, for instance, was aimed directly at Trump voters, I think. Listen to the clip below and you’ll hear him note that he was the only candidate running who was willing to risk a shutdown in the name of defunding Planned Parenthood. Meanwhile, according to the last national poll taken, Trump is still 20 points ahead of him. Just this morning, Trump told MSNBC that he’s never getting out of the race. Cruz may have finally concluded that Trump’s not going to jump off the cliff himself. He’s going to need a little push.
Which brings us back to one of the great mysteries of the primary: Is Cruz right that he’ll end up inheriting most of Trump’s support if/when he drops out? The numbers don’t support that (yet), but that may be because another “outsider” candidate, Ben Carson, is momentarily in Cruz’s way. Once he and Trump have both faded, voters looking for an anti-establishmentarian may reconcile themselves to Cruz. Whether that happens, I think, depends mainly on what ends up mattering more, his message or his mien. No one can deliver anti-Washington red meat like Cruz, but he’s every inch the polished, Harvard-trained lawyer when he talks. He and Trump couldn’t be more different in that respect. And of course, Cruz is a conservative ideologue whereas Trump is, er, not. How much of an obstacle, or benefit, is that conservatism among Trump voters? Stay tuned.