LAS VEGAS — Don't get Trumped.
That's the task facing Ted Cruz as he heads into the fifth Republican presidential debate in the crosshairs of the bomb-throwing billionaire.
While Cruz has found himself under scrutiny from a proliferating number of rivals since the last debate, no brewing conflict could be more consequential Tuesday night than the one between the senator and The Donald. In recent days, Trump has turned on Cruz after a months-long truce of sorts, questioning whether he is beholden to the oil industry and has the right temperament to be president.
Those who cross Trump have not fared well in the polls, a point the billionaire often makes with glee. Cruz is hoping not to face the same fate as his stock rises in Iowa, endangering Trump's monthslong frontrunner status in the first-in-the-country caucus state.
As Cruz takes the stage inside The Venetian Hotel and Casino — his lectern positioned beside Trump's for the first time all debate season — the senator is not expected to debut any new strategy for dealing with Trump. For months, Cruz has been by far friendlier with Trump than any other GOP hopefuls have been, cultivating an alliance that has largely shielded him from his opponent's wrath. It's been an effort to ensure he stays in the good graces of Trump fans should Trump leave the race.
Cruz's campaign says he will treat Trump like any other opponent Tuesday night. He'll be willing to address policy differences but unwilling to engage in personal attacks.
"Cruz, as he has before, is ready to defend his record if anyone calls it into question,” said Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the campaign.
Cruz affirmed that approach Monday evening in his first media appearance since Trump began speaking ill of him. In an interview on Las Vegas radio, the senator declined to respond to Trump's suggestion that Cruz has acted "a little bit like a maniac" in the Senate. Cruz reiterated his belief that voters are not interested in a "food fight" between candidates.
Trump appears more eager for a brawl, especially after audio surfaced last week that purportedly showed Cruz questioning Trump's "judgment" at a fundraiser. At a rally Friday in Iowa, Trump raised his first criticisms of Cruz, questioning how he could win the caucuses given his opposition to ethanol subsidies and casting doubt on his ability to connect with evangelicals due to his Cuban heritage. Trump upped the ante in TV interviews that aired Sunday, saying he does not think Cruz is qualified to be president due to his disruptive tenure in the Senate.
Asked Sunday on Fox News if viewers can expect fireworks between Cruz and Trump at the debate, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski brought up Cruz's fundraiser remarks, saying they illustrate how Americans are "tired of politicians who say one thing behind a closed door and another thing out in front of the public." Moments later, Lewandowski offered an ominous warning: "If you attack Donald Trump, be prepared. Because he's going to hit back and he's going to hit back hard."
Lewandowski also previewed of a potential line of attack for Tuesday night, suggesting voters are still not fully aware of Cruz's support two years ago for dramatically increasing the number of visas for highly skilled workers. Cruz has since distanced himself from that proposal, saying the H-1B visa program should be put on hold until problems with it are fixed.
As Trump has escalated his rhetoric against Cruz, the senator has playfully sought to defuse tensions. The most recent example came Monday night while Trump was holding a pre-debate rally in Las Vegas.
"Getting ready for the debate tomorrow. Needed some inspiration," Cruz tweeted, linking to a scene from the movie "Tommy Boy" in which the main character dances to the song "Maniac."
The senator's allies still do not see much value in antagonizing the billionaire and potentially alienating his supporters, many of whom Cruz believes will ultimately come to his side. Plus, Cruz's backers have watched for months as other candidates have lined up to whack Trump, only to have their poll numbers sag and Trump's rise higher.
"There's never been any wisdom in taking on Donald Trump and starting a fight with him," U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa said Monday morning in an interview on CNN.
One thing that remains to be seen is whether Trump's wrath can have the same effect on Cruz that it has had on other rivals. Trump was rebuked Monday by two usually friendly radio hosts, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh, for attacking Cruz, with both conservative talkers saying Trump's criticisms sounded like those lodged against Cruz by more moderate Republicans. Hours later, at the Las Vegas pre-debate rally, Trump barely mentioned Cruz, let alone said a negative word about him.
Yet it is not just Trump who has set his sights on Cruz since the last debate. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and his campaign have been working for weeks to undermine Cruz's credibility on foreign policy, portraying him as weak and inconsistent at a time when Americans have heightened concerns about national security.
"Each time he's had to choose between strong national defense and some of the isolationist tendencies in American politics he seems to side with the isolationists," Rubio said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Cruz could also take heat from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, whose campaign released a TV ad Monday morning that implies the Texan has not done enough to keep Syrian refugees from coming to the United States. The 90-second spot features comments Cruz made last year in which he said it has "been the history of the United States" to welcome refugees and "we should continue to do so."
All eyes are nonetheless likely to fall on the Cruz-Trump dynamic. At the pre-debate rally, Trump warned the stakes could not be higher for the national broadcast Tuesday night — at least for his opponents.
"I am giving them a chance," Trump said, "to make total fools of themselves in front of millions of people."