For months, Ted Cruz has warned audiences across the country about what the 2016 presidential election could mean for the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The next president could get up to four Supreme Court justices," Cruz said in a recent radio interview. "We are one liberal justice away from a five-justice liberal majority the likes of which this country has never seen."

In Cruz's telling, that majority could be responsible for a host of decisions with grave consequences: the removal of Ten Commandments monuments from public grounds, the end of gun rights as the country knows them, the striking down of all prohibitions on abortion — even the court "ordering the chisels to come out to take off the crosses and stars of David on the tombstones of our fallen soldiers."

With the sudden and unexpected death Saturday of Justice Antonin Scalia, Cruz's case is becoming more salient than ever — and he is moving quickly to capitalize on it. The U.S. senator from Texas is vowing to put up a fight if President Barack Obama tries to nominate a replacement, and Cruz is seeking to inject even more drama in to the race for the White House, declaring it a "referendum on the Supreme Court." 

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"Today we saw just how grave the stakes are," Cruz said at the ninth Republican debate Saturday in Greenville, South Carolina. "Two branches of government hang in the balance — not just the presidency, but the Supreme Court."

Cruz's campaign sees opportunity in the battle over the bench, which adds a real-life example to Cruz's relatively abstract warnings about the future of the court. "It's no longer theoretical," Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe told reporters after the debate. 

Cruz was the first presidential candidate to formally react to Scalia's death Saturday, issuing a statement that called him "one of the greatest Justices in history." Cruz quickly followed up the statement with a tweet that suggested the next president should name Scalia's replacement. A few hours later, Obama made clear he will try not to let that happen, saying he intends "to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time."

Scalia's death is portending an epic political battle heightened by an election year in which candidates from both parties were already talking in dramatic terms about the future of the court. In an appearance Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Cruz said he "absolutely" will filibuster any nominee Obama puts forward to replace Scalia. 

"Let the election decide it," Cruz said. "If the Democrats want to replace this nominee, they need to win the election."

At the same time, Cruz is using the conversation sparked by Scalia's death as a wedge against his GOP rivals, most pointedly Donald Trump. On the debate stage, Cruz flatly said the billionaire "will appoint liberals" to the court if elected, a warning he has echoed in media appearances since their meeting in Greenville. 

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"If Donald Trump becomes president, the Second Amendment will be written out of the Constitution because it is abundantly clear that Donald Trump is not a conservative," Cruz said on "This Week." "He will not invest the capital to confirm a conservative."

Cruz's campaign amplified the message later Sunday with the release of a TV ad that lists some of the issues that could come before the court then says Americans "cannot trust Donald Trump with these serious decisions." The 30-second spot, titled "Supreme Trust," includes part of a 1999 interview in which Trump describes himself as "very pro-choice" and says he would not ban partial-birth abortions as president. 

Trump is also finding political value in the renewed debate about judicial nominees, reviving questions about Cruz's onetime support for Justice John Roberts, whose two decisions upholding Obama's health care law have angered conservatives. In 2005, Cruz, then the solicitor general of Texas, wrote a glowing op-ed for the National Review that urged swift confirmation of Roberts after then-President George W. Bush nominated him. 

Cruz "put John Roberts on the Supreme Court," said Trump, stretching the truth, in an interview on Fox News following the debate. "He was the one that pushed for John Roberts. John Roberts has been a disaster. John Roberts had two chances to knock out Obamacare, and he didn't do it."

Cruz, for his part, insists he regrets supporting Roberts in the wake of his betrayals on Obamacare. If he had his way, he says, he would not have nominated him in the first place. 

Abby Livingston contributed to this report.