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In Trump's Chaos, Cruz's Savvy Met its Match

Ted Cruz's cool, calculated style met its match in Trump's freewheeling pugilism, which again and again upended the central features of Cruz's candidacy.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (left) and Donald Trump.

INDIANAPOLIS — Ten months before Ted Cruz assailed Donald Trump as an "utterly amoral," a "pathological liar" and a "serial philanderer," the Texas senator found himself standing in a parking lot near the Iowa-Minnesota border.

After finding a mostly empty welcome center — and a few patrons less than enthused by pausing their bathroom break for a presidential candidate — Cruz turned to conversation with the two remaining reporters who had been following him that day in September. 

These are interesting times, Cruz observed, cautiously chuckling as the conversation moved to how frontrunner Donald Trump earlier that summer had given children helicopter rides at the Iowa State Fair. He nodded knowingly. Interesting times indeed.

For a split second, Cruz seemed on the verge of what was virtually unthinkable then: a moment of candor about Trump, whom for months he steadfastly refused to criticize in hopes of eventually winning over his supporters. But the moment never materialized, and the day ended like many during that period: without Cruz so much as uttering a negative word about the rival who is now the presumptive Republican nominee.

Trump delivered a knockout blow to Cruz's campaign Tuesday in the Indiana primary, forcing the Texas senator out of the race. The outcome capped a remarkable campaign for Cruz that began more than a year ago with him facing long odds.

By most accounts, Cruz's campaign was the best run in the initially wide GOP field, and not just by virtue of his last-man-standing status. Yet in the end, Cruz's cool, calculated style met its match in Trump's freewheeling pugilism, which again and again upended the central features of Cruz's candidacy. 

Cruz's hard-charging campaign and political instincts? "Lyin' Ted," Trump would say. 

Cruz's short, crusading career in the Senate? Destructive and divisive, according to Trump. 

And Cruz's soaring oratory? "Shakespearean" politico-speak, in Trump's telling.

In the final few months of the race, Cruz had thrown everything at Trump, and then some. He called him a fake conservative with a lifetime of bankrolling Democratic candidates and causes. He eviscerated him as a phony populist, a coldhearted capitalist masquerading as a champion of the little guy. And especially in the final days of his campaign, Cruz portrayed Trump as nothing but a bully, a small, insecure man preying on those less powerful than him.

It wasn’t always that way, as the night in Northwood, Iowa, suggested. Cruz’s campaign had made an early decision not to go on the offensive against Trump, a calculated move to one day earn the support of his backers. But Cruz's campaign also understood the peril of engaging Trump from a position of weakness, inviting the erratic wrath of a self-styled "counterpuncher." 

“He’s a formidable opponent, and the last thing I would ever try to do is try to predict what they’re going to do in the future,” a senior Cruz official said in December as it was becoming clear that then-allies Cruz and Trump were on a collision course in Iowa.  

Republicans outside the campaign understood — and in some cases, appreciated — the approach. But where they harbored some disdain for Cruz was in his effusive praise of Trump, seeing it as only propping up the monster that would eventually consume the entire field.

“I don’t think it was a mistake at all for him not to attack Trump early," said Steve Munisteri, the former chairman of the Texas GOP who had worked for one of Cruz's Republican rivals, Rand Paul. "The only thing I would quibble with is there is a difference between refraining from attacking and being effusive in praise."

“If you say a lot of positive things about the candidate, it’s hard later to say negative things and seem authentic," Munisteri added.

In Indiana, Cruz’s campaign had hoped to be helped by a unified anti-Trump effort similar to what happened in Wisconsin three weeks earlier. The cavalry never fully arrived, leaving Cruz’s campaign to wage a war of attrition against the billionaire.

Cruz, who ended up losing Indiana to Trump by 16 points, did not mention Trump as he announced Tuesday night he was suspending his campaign. He did not need to. 

Hours earlier, during what would be the final event of his campaign, Cruz launched into a cathartic tirade against Trump, calling him “utterly amoral,” a “pathological liar” and a “serial philanderer.” First, however, the Texas senator offered a preface — one that would have mortified the Ted Cruz standing in the rest stop parking lot 10 months ago.

“I’m going to do something I haven’t done for the entire campaign,” Cruz told reporters. “I’m going to tell you what I really think of Donald Trump.”

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