While almost the entire Republican presidential field wasted no time unloading on New York billionaire Donald Trump last weekend for saying that Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was not a hero, Sen. Ted Cruz took his time.
Cruz finally said that McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, was a hero and a friend, but that Trump was a friend, too.
Why the doublespeak?
The Texas senator, say political observers, sees his anti-Washington message aligning with Trump’s – especially on immigration – and is looking to inherit those voters after what most experts believe will be the billionaire’s inevitable departure from the race.
“Cruz is trying to plant his flag as the leader in being anti-Washington,” said Dave Carney, a veteran political strategist who is not aligned with any 2016 presidential campaign. “That’s part of his winning coalition, he thinks.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., even tweeted Monday that Cruz was looking for Trump’s “leftovers.”
“There’s something unseemly about Cruz following Trump around like a lost puppy, hoping to get his leftovers when he finally flames out,” said McCaskill.
Trump, at the moment, does not appear to be flaming out. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll that Trump announced Monday in a release, he was leading the Republican field with 24 percent. A Monmouth University poll placed him second in Iowa, with 13 percent, just behind Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
“Politicians have completely failed the American people,” said Trump.
Cruz and Trump met last week in New York just before the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, that set off the flap over McCain.
The Texas senator wants to capitalize on the outsider appeal that Trump brings by making sure he doesn’t turn off Trump’s supporters – who he calculates will turn to him down the road.
“Both are trying to appeal to the same hunk of voters,” said Carney, who ran then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign. “Cruz doesn’t want to alienate those voters.”
Of the Republican presidential candidates who are already in the race – Ohio Gov. John Kasich announced Tuesday morning, making it 16 – Cruz has been one of the most outspoken on issues that resonate with the GOP base, among them the recent Supreme Court decisions legalizing gay marriage and upholding the Affordable Care Act.
Trump has led an anti-illegal immigration push and is also an anti-Washington messenger with an outsider’s resume as a developer and reality TV star. Cruz won the Senate seat in 2012 in his first run at elective office, although he had worked in the federal and state government.
And Cruz immediately made a name for himself in Washington by speaking out against the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, most famously in a 21-hour floor speech in 2013 that helped trigger a partial government shutdown.
“It’s a good bet that Trump will deflate sooner or later,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Someone will inherit those votes. Cruz is in a good position to do so since he is also an outsider and has stressed his opposition to illegal immigration. One thing is for sure. The Trump vote isn’t going to Jeb Bush if Trump has anything to say about it. Trump will remember who was nice and who was nasty to him.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, brother and son to former presidents, has been critical of Trump, especially on his remarks calling Mexicans entering the U.S. “rapists” and criminals. Bush’s wife is Mexican-born.
Cruz, who is Cuban-American, supported Trump when he made those remarks, too, saying that he is a champion of legal immigration.
John Weaver, campaign manager for Kasich, was McCain’s 2008 campaign manager when the Arizonan was the GOP presidential nominee. “I don’t think that Ted Cruz has particularly warm feelings for John McCain,” said Weaver, alluding to McCain referring to Cruz as a “wacko bird.”
But there is a method to Cruz’s approach.
“He’s hoping if Trump craters, some of those voters will gravitate to him,” said Weaver.
Lindsay Wise of the Washington Bureau contributed.