NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — No, Ted Cruz still will not attack Donald Trump. But even as he continues to keep things friendly with the billionaire, the U.S senator from Texas is envisioning a showdown with him for the Republican presidential nomination.
Campaigning Tuesday in Tennessee and Arkansas, Cruz repeatedly entertained the idea that he and Trump will be the last men standing to carry their party's banner in the general election. As Cruz has risen in the polls, especially in Iowa, Trump has speculated more than once that the GOP contest for the White House is becoming a "two-man race" between the two closest allies in the field.
"Well, Donald a couple of days ago said he could see it coming down to the two of us, and I think that's entirely possible," Cruz told reporters before a rally Wednesday evening in North Little Rock. "If you look at where the polling numbers are, it more and more seems to be headed in that direction."
As Cruz readies for the final month before the first nominating contests begin, he appears to no longer view the race as culminating in a head-to-head between a conservative candidate like himself and an establishment hopeful. Until recently, Cruz seemed to be making that foil his Senate colleague Marco Rubio, who has been hammering Cruz for weeks on immigration and national security.
Once welcoming of a potential face-off with Rubio, Cruz has increasingly cast doubts on the Florida senator's long-term viability in the race. Cruz has suggested Rubio does not have a path to victory in any of the first four early voting states, where Cruz has implied Rubio's outreach has been halfhearted and designed to avoid tough questions from Republican primary voters.
Rubio's campaign has slung the same kind of criticism at Cruz, claiming Rubio is the only one in the GOP field "competing everywhere" and suggesting Cruz is writing off New Hampshire.
Cruz now appears to be looking past Rubio to Trump, the months-long frontrunner with whom the Texas senator has studiously avoided going to battle. A senior Cruz campaign official, granted anonymity to discuss internal thinking, called Trump a "formidable opponent" when asked Tuesday about the prospect of a two-man race. The primary coming down to Cruz and Trump, the official said, is the "most rational conclusion" given where things currently stand in the race.
The theory received another measure of credibility Tuesday with the release of a Quinnipiac University poll showing Cruz pulling within 4 percentage points of Trump nationally. Another survey put out a day later by CNN, however, found the gap between the two to be much wider — 21 points.
In either case, Cruz and Trump are consistently drawing support in early state and national polling that dwarfs most of the rest of the GOP field. It's a point that has not been lost on Cruz as he rethinks the architecture of the race.
"Right now the Washington establishment is panicking," Cruz said in an interview on Fox News on Monday. "They're confused their golden children are not succeeding in the polls."
The idea of a Cruz-Trump matchup does not just scramble the Texas senator's thinking that the primary would come down to a conservative and a moderate. It's also an acknowledgment that Trump's staying power is unique from that of other candidates who have topped the polls.
At one point earlier this month, Cruz seemed to raise the possibility that the momentum behind Carson and Trump was slowing. That only proved true for Carson, whose frontrunner status has slipped away as national security has come to the forefront of the race following terrorist attacks in Paris and California.
"I think both of them, their campaigns have a natural arc, and with both of them, I think gravity is pulling them down. We've seen that. Carson is further in that descent," Cruz was recorded as saying at a fundraiser in New York — remarks that led to a brief period of turmoil in the otherwise chummy relationship between Cruz and Trump.
On Tuesday morning, Cruz continued to maintain his anti-aggression pact with Trump. Speaking with reporters in Knoxville, Tenn., he said he will not "play political pundit" when asked about Trump's statement the day earlier that President Barack Obama "schlonged" Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary.
For months, Cruz's allies and supporters have watched Trump's campaign with mixed feelings. Some agree with Cruz's view that Trump's candidacy has helped Cruz by making the race about which hopeful has "stood up to Washington." Others have been more open about their suspicions of Trump, whom they say may have strong anti-establishment appeal but no record to back it up like Cruz does.
"Donald Trump’s a high-risk candidate," U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who has endorsed Cruz, said in an interview Friday. "He may be great, he may not. No one has any way of knowing... He's never been in the fight before."
That argument — that Trump would be a risky bet for Republican primary voters fed up with Washington — is not unheard of on the campaign trail. It was a common thread in recent days as Cruz paid visits to the group of mostly southern states set to vote March 1 in what is being called the "SEC primary."
"I think Trump just blows a lot of hot air," said David Kimbrough, a police officer who came to see Cruz on Sunday near Birmingham, Ala. "Cruz, to me, seems more dependable and will back what he says. He's more of an honest candidate than Trump is."
In recent weeks, though, it is Rubio who has placed himself more in conflict with Cruz than Trump has. The Florida senator and his campaign have aggressively sought to show he and Cruz have similar positions on immigration, which Cruz has dismissed as an attempt to muddy the waters.
The sustained offensive by Rubio has put Cruz on the defensive more so than at any point since he launched his bid for the White House. But Cruz's campaign believes Rubio is only digging himself a deeper hole by putting front and center his involvement in the 2013 immigration reform bill that is reviled by many GOP primary voters.
"If your opponent doesn't score a goal, you can't lose, and he hasn't scored a goal," the senior Cruz campaign official said of Rubio's offensive.
In fact, Cruz's campaign believes Rubio has only helped Cruz by accelerating the sharpening of their contrasts on the issues — and rallying prominent conservative figures to Cruz's side in the process. "It's been great for us" in that regard, the senior Cruz campaign official said.
Rubio's campaign maintained Wednesday that Cruz still is not being forthcoming on a range of issues that go beyond immigration.
"Everybody knows Marco's positions," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said in a statement. "We still don't know Sen. Cruz's position because he keeps changing and saying different things. Sen. Cruz's inconsistencies on immigration, trade and security are a problem that he still has not addressed."
Cruz's remarks on a possible Trump faceoff came on the second-to-last day of a weeklong swing through eight mostly southern states. He is scheduled to wrap up the tour Wednesday with two rallies in Oklahoma, one in the morning in Tulsa then the other in the afternoon in Oklahoma City.
Cruz is taking a few days off for Christmas but plans to be back on the campaign trail by the start of next week, when he heads to Cisco, Texas — the home of the top donors to his presidential effort — for a meeting with evangelical leaders, a fundraiser and a rally. In January, his schedule is expected to center on Iowa with less than a month until the caucuses, but also include trips to New Hampshire and South Carolina.