Before you start jumping up and down and saying “It’s on,” note that Cruz supposedly said this at a private fundraiser, not publicly. And when asked to confirm it by the press, he declined.

Can’t blame him. The idea that Donald Trump, who’s reversed himself on a galaxy of partisan hot-button issues over the past 15 years, might not be the steady hand we need on the tiller of the ship of state is very controversial indeed.

Mr. Cruz described both campaigns [Trump and Ben Carson] 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 was asked about this earlier today after a speech and said, without naming names, “ultimately the decision is, who has the right judgment — experience and judgment — to serve as commander in chief?” Experience and judgment? He’s spent a total of two and three-quarters years as a legislator. He’s alienated nearly everyone in the Senate, making it difficult for him to even ask for floor votes anymore, and his main claim to fame among the wider public is probably as the face of the doomed 2013 shutdown over ObamaCare. I say this as someone who’s leaning towards Cruz in the primary: Trump has plenty of ammo to attack him on experience and judgment if he wants to engage over this. But then ask yourself, if Cruz doesn’t hit Trump for his “judgment,” what’s he going to hit him on? He can’t call him a RINO; plenty of Trump fans are RINO-y themselves and those who aren’t seem willing to tolerate Trump’s RINO-ier tendencies because of his less RINO-y ones, like mass deportation. Cruz could go after him for some of the outre things he’s said about women, etc, but that would just piss off Trump fans. Being non-PC is part of Trump’s appeal, and occasional boorishness comes with the territory. Plus, scolding the base and its heroes for being “vulgar” or whatever is a hallmark of establishmentarians, not would-be populists like Ted Cruz. If he tries to slap Trump’s wrist for not having the character needed for the office, it’ll end up turning off the Trump voters Cruz keeps pandering to.

Here’s a radical idea, via Jay Cost: What if Cruz never attacks Trump publicly? Does he really need to? Right now, Trump being in the race may be helping him more than it’s hurting him.

In much the same way that Trump has set the terms of the presidential debate in ways that discomfited the party’s leadership and fired up the base, Cruz did the same in Washington. The intense loathing Cruz inspired among every professional Republican politician not named Ted Cruz made his nomination difficult to fathom. But the rise of Trump has changed many things, and one of them may be to grant Republican insiders a new perspective on just what unacceptable means.

Rubio is the candidate who laid his credibility on the line in order to resolve the party’s immigration problem in 2013. (While he failed, and abandoned his own proposal, pro-reform Republicans have every reason to believe his heart lies with them.) Trump is the candidate whose inflammatory racism would brand the GOP as irrevocably hostile to immigrant communities. Cruz lies in between, not having sponsored major pro-reform legislation, but also having steered clear of crude Trumpist demagoguery (and, like Rubio, having a Cuban-American background to fall back upon).

Cruz may find himself best positioned to bridge the gap, and well positioned to win a three-way race divided along these lines. Should Trump falter, pro-Trump border hawks would probably prefer Cruz to Rubio, who tried to shepherd immigration reform through the Senate. And should Rubio falter, Rubio’s supporters would find Cruz a more predictable and disciplined Republican partisan than the erratic Trump.

For most of the fall, the conventional wisdom (adopted by Cruz himself, apparently) has been that most Trump fans will become Cruz fans once Trump is out of the race, in which case Cruz obviously should want Trump out of the race ASAP. They’re both “outsiders,” they both crap on “the Washington cartel” at every opportunity — it’s a natural match. Lately, though, with more attention being paid to the class divide between Trump’s base and the rest of the GOP plus the fact that Trump’s supporters are more a distinct coalition than some traditional subset of the Republican base, that conventional wisdom has loosened. Remember that USA Today poll from a few days ago? More than two-thirds of Trump fans say they’d vote for Trump even if he dumped the GOP and ran as an independent. Their allegiance to any politician or party beyond Trump himself is hard to pin down; Cruz would be taking a calculated gamble in expecting they’d choose him over Rubio (he’s closer to Trump on immigration), but it’s still a gamble. Rubio’s pushed harder in the Senate on blue-collar economic reforms than Trump has. Rubio’s also more personally likable than Cruz. So maybe Cruz is now thinking that keeping Trump around for awhile isn’t an altogether bad thing. If Cruz wins Iowa, which seems increasingly likely, then he’ll be pulling for Trump to win New Hampshire (assuming Cruz himself isn’t in contention) in the name of denying Rubio a big win. Cruz would look much better in a head-to-head race against Trump for the nomination, even to center-righties who otherwise don’t like, than he would against Rubio. That’s the Jeb Bush strategy — turn the race into “Trump vs. not Trump.” That won’t work for Jeb. It probably would for Cruz.

Exit question: Per the Times, one of the people at Cruz’s fundraiser reportedly asked whether he trusts Trump’s judgment to appoint quality Supreme Court justices. (Cruz’s answer is unknown.) What do Trump fans think about that? You trust a rock-ribbed lifelong dogmatic conservative like Trump to be a stickler on conservative justices, no?

Update: Lame.

How is the Times story misleading if Cruz is now reiterating the point they claimed he made at the fundraiser? A Twitter pal who says he’s a Trump fan told me last night that he has more respect for Jeb than for Cruz because at least Bush is showing some leadership in disagreeing with Trump on things. As a would-be Cruz voter, I sympathize with that. There is a middle ground between viciously berating Trump and his fans and coming off like you might take a dump in your pants in terror if people perceive you as criticizing him.

Update: I assume this is a dig at Cruz.

Is it really true that Rubio wouldn’t say something at a fundraiser that he wouldn’t also say publicly? I can think of something.