Cruz Sees Opportunity in GOP's Opposition to His Bid

Cruz Sees Opportunity in GOP's Opposition to His Bid
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Ted Cruz has made his mark in the Senate by making enemies. Now, those enemies are coming back to haunt him by actively working against his presidential campaign.

But the Texas senator sees the growing opposition from his party's statesmen as a prime opportunity.

With the Iowa caucus just days away, establishment-aligned Republicans have ramped up criticisms of Cruz, fearing he would be a worse standard bearer for their party in the general election than Donald Trump. The signs of party figures warming to Trump, even if within a lesser-of-two-evils scenario, mark a notable transformation from the days of handwringing over how to take down the GOP frontrunner. Not only does it seem to acknowledge a two-man race, but it also doesn't exactly exude confidence that their favorite candidates will break out of the pack any time soon, either.

And that's precisely why Cruz wears comments this week by 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, and many others as a badge of honor.

"Right now, the Republican establishment is abandoning Marco Rubio," Cruz said during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. "They've made the assessment that Marco Rubio can't win this race. And the Washington establishment is rushing over to support Donald Trump."

Cruz repeated the charge several times throughout the day, while noting that conservatives have united around his campaign. "If conservatives unite, we win," he said.

Rubio has been making an anti-establishment pitch of his own, invoking the 2010 Senate run and his current presidential bid as examples of when GOP leaders advised him to stand down and wait his turn. During campaign stops in New Hampshire, Rubio pointed to millions of dollars in super PAC ads running against him, mostly from supporters of Jeb Bush. "That's money from the establishment," he said.

Rubio and candidates like him would be considered what the establishment would want in a Republican nominee. Rubio, along with Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Bush, would all like to be part of a two-man race between either Trump or Cruz, but they are stuck in a traffic jam. Trying to take down Trump has proven difficult, even counter productive.

The latest maneuverings by mainstream Republicans have only emboldened Cruz. He has been encouraging the establishment to continue promoting Trump, as it draws a clear contrast, he believes, between his campaign and that of his chief rival.

The race in Iowa between the two is as competitive as ever. RealClearPolitics polling average in Iowa shows Trump edging Cruz by 2.6 percentage points.

This week was a tough one for Cruz on the campaign trail. Trump seemed to constantly deprive him of needed oxygen. Sarah Palin's endorsement of Trump was considered a blow to Cruz because it gave both anti-establishment credence and some conservative approval to the billionaire businessman from New York.

Branstad, the longstanding governor of the state, urged caucus goers not to support Cruz over the senator's call to phase out federal subsides for ethanol. Trump flaunted Palin's backing in Iowa, considered a must-win state for Cruz, and poked at the Texas senator over his Canadian birth, eligibility for office, and ties to Goldman Sachs. During a rally in Iowa, Trump brought up Cruz's failure to disclose major bank loans to his senatorial campaign on official reports.

Cruz has been hitting Trump over his support for bank bailouts and charged that he didn't start thinking about immigration until he started running for president. As Trump questioned Cruz's "temperament," the senator said his rival was "frazzled." Still, Trump continued to dominate the conversation.

Then came the pile-on.

In an interview with the New York Times, Dole said there would be "wholesale" losses if Cruz were the party's nominee. Dole has been critical of Cruz--even telling NBC News last year that he would "oversleep" on election day if the senator was on the ballot--and views him as an extremist. Dole, who won the Iowa caucuses in 1996 and is supporting Bush this cycle, said Trump would be more acceptable than Cruz because he would "probably work with Congress, because he’s, you know, he’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.”

Cruz, who has blamed past Republican presidential losses on "moderates" like Dole, Mitt Romney, and John McCain, seized on the remarks. For Cruz, opposition from Dole and Senate colleagues who joined the chorus this week further fuels his cause and promotes his brand as the establishment's worst nightmare.

In December, when Trump called Cruz a "maniac" who is more disruptive in the Senate than accomplished, Cruz supporters rushed to the senator’s defense. Conservative radio host Mark Levin, a Cruz supporter, ripped into Trump on his show: "More and more conservatives are announcing for Cruz because of the way he's taken on the Republican establishment."

Cruz and his supporters also took the opposition from Iowa's governor over ethanol subsides as an opportunity. For Cruz, Branstad is representative of a "Washington cartel" that supports "corporate welfare and cronyism." The "cartel," he said this week, is in "full panic mode" over a Cruz nomination. Cruz supporters praise the senator for his ethanol stance, even though it's a controversial one in corn-rich Iowa, because it demonstrates he is not beholden to an industry or devoted to politics as usual.

Principled stances, as Cruz calls them, have earned him the ire of Senate colleagues. His fight over funding for the Affordable Care Act, which led to a government shutdown, is just one example. He has prided himself on not making any friends in the upper chamber, eschewing the traditional ways of doing business in Washington.

"The feelings toward Cruz are so personal among people who have worked with him," says Peter Wehener, a veteran of Reagan and both Bush administrations and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

"There is opposition to both [Trump and Cruz], but different intensity to the opposition," Wehener says. "For Donald Trump, it's an abstract concern--most people haven't dealt with Trump personally."

Republicans haven't exactly thrown in the towel, and many caution against weighing in until voting begins and provides more clarity. And some Republicans haven't abandoned the goal of taking down Trump, either. A new PAC, headed by a former top Romney aide, launched this week to support such an endeavor, Politico reported.

Others, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, who dropped out the race last month and recently endorsed Bush, doesn't believe a choice between Trump and Cruz is a good one.

"Whether it's death by being shot or poisoning, does it really matter?" he told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday.

"There are arguments to be made that Trump could have the ability to bring out new voters who haven’t participated in recent elections, and that House and Senate candidates might have more room to separate themselves from the top of the ticket versus having a sitting senator," says Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist and veteran of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

"But I don’t know that either of those things ultimately changes the reality that having either Trump or Cruz would present a serious obstacle to not just winning the White House but holding the Senate as well."

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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Ted Cruz has made his mark in the Senate by making enemies. Now, those enemies are coming back to haunt him by actively working against his...

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