His strategy was on display at the debate. Cruz pointedly refuses to attack Trump, knowing that he can pick up Trump’s supporters. In fact, because Trump’s every iteration is so outrageous, Cruz’s less bellicose version of the same belief comes across as moderate.
Instead, Cruz turned his sites on Rubio, who has come off pretty well in the debates, largely because he’s gone up against lightweights like Bush. With Cruz, Rubio may be trying to punch above his weight. The most telling moment of the debate came when Cruz slammed Rubio for supporting immigration reform or, as Cruz likes to call it, “amnesty.” Rubio tried to say that there was little difference between his position and Cruz’s, but the Texan was having none of it, saying the comparison was “like suggesting the fireman and the arsonist have the same record, because they were both at the scene of the fire.”
Immigration reform is Rubio’s weak spot with the base (and a point in his favor with more moderate voters). Rubio took on immigration reform after the 2012 election, possibly out of the belief that it would help secure Latino voters’ gratitude. Instead, it aroused the ire of the base so badly that Rubio has spent years trying to distance himself from that brief moment of common sense.
A lot can change between now and the early election states, but one thing is clear: the Republican party remains in complete disarray. Rubio may be the hope of the GOP establishment, but so far there’s no sign that voters are rushing to embrace him. Trump may be the candidate who has a solid base, but nothing to add to it. And that leaves Ted Cruz, cheerfully biding his time, with lots of cash and a well-planned strategy. He may be the only alternative the party is left with when all the shouting stops.