By Ben Kamisar - 12/13/15 10:30 AM EST
Ted CruzTed CruzIs Georgia turning blue? Five takeaways from money race Club for Growth: Anti-Trump spending proved to be 'good call' MORE’s strategy for winning the Republican presidential nomination is becoming clearer by the day.
The Texas senator continues to march toward primary season methodically cobbling together the segments of GOP voters, winning endorsements and rising at the polls particularly in Iowa.
But his increased appetite for taking on Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioNew York Times endorses Rubio's rival Rubio: GOP Congress could go in different direction than Trump Poll: Clinton holds 4-point lead in Florida MORE (Fla.), as well as his repeated resistance to taking the gloves off with Donald TrumpDonald TrumpClinton on Trump: 'I don’t even think about responding to him anymore' WATCH LIVE: Clinton, Kaine rally supporters in Pennsylvania Trump campaign blasts new allegation as 'false and ridiculous' MORE, sheds light on the senator’s fourth-quarter strategy.
“This week was probably his best week,” Ford O’Connell, an unaffiliated Republican strategist, said, noting the endorsement of major Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, who has backed the last two Iowa caucus winners.
“It’s been impressive to watch Sen. Cruz start to consolidate the anti-establishment conservative segment of the Iowa caucus electorate,” former state GOP chairman Matt Strawn told The Hill.
“It’s not just the bold-faced name endorsements that he’s received…but it’s been building out a large statewide network of local leaders that represent those various constituencies.”
But as his numbers and profile continue to rise, Cruz has deepened his feud with Rubio, who has also seen a rise in polls and profile, through barbs in the media, in dueling statements, and through surrogates.
This week, Cruz has begun to try to paint Rubio as a liberal, framing his rival’s foreign policy as in line with that of Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton on Trump: 'I don’t even think about responding to him anymore' WATCH LIVE: Clinton, Kaine rally supporters in Pennsylvania Trump campaign blasts new allegation as 'false and ridiculous' MORE and Barack ObamaBarack ObamaObama promotes new airline regulations Is Georgia turning blue? Five takeaways from money race MORE, along with members of the GOP establishment.
And when Fox News’ Bill Hemmer asked him about the battle with Rubio, Cruz noted a recent work by conservative columnist Mark Levin that called Rubio’s attacks on his record in the vein of noted left-wing community organizer Saul Alinsky. Cruz and other conservatives have repeatedly sought to slight President Obama with comparisons to Alinsky.
“What Mark Levin said is that Rubio is engaging in Alinskyite tactics of simply lying,” he said Wednesday on “America’s Newsroom.”
“That's Mark Levin calling him out, and the reason is understandable.”
Kellyanne Conway, who heads the pro-Cruz super-PAC Keep the Promise, contends Rubio sounds good, but is not sound in his positions.
“Rubio can win a debate, but you have to win the argument,” she added.
“Every six or seven weeks, people will say, ‘Rubio won the debate,’ but the nominee is the person that ends up winning the argument. You win the argument by showing up in front of people in the states that vote early and engaging with them.”
Most strategists see Iowa as Cruz's best chance at a victory in the first two nominating states.
Cruz has had 91 campaign events over 41 days in Iowa, good for fourth place out of GOP candidates according to a Des Moines Register event tracker, and ahead of every other candidate towards the top of the polls.
But Rubio has been criticized for not spending as much time as other candidates in the early states, especially New Hampshire, where he sits in second place. He's held 36 events in the Granite State, according to New England Cable News. That’s three less than Cruz.
O’Connell said that their “inner squabble” is a big deal as far as who can emerge as Trump’s biggest foil even though the “differences between them are so minute.”
“Rubio wisely figured out that national security would be his ticket to the nomination, and with events lining up the way they are lining up, it was a very smart play. Cruz sees that and wants to find a way to tamp down Rubio,” he said.
He added that the increasing emphasis on national security could be “extremely dangerous for Cruz—that’s why he’s busy…mitigating these attacks.” Cruz repeatedly brings up Rubio’s past support of a pathway to citizenship and casts him as a member of the party’s establishment that have failed to win the White House over the last eight years.
But while the row with Rubio has bubbled straight to the surface, Cruz has repeatedly brushed aside every chance to take on Trump, even though he clearly stands in the way of the Texan’s hopes of winning his party’s nomination.
As fellow candidates piled onto the real estate magnate after he called on Monday to ban Muslim immigration, Cruz briefly noted his disagreement but refused to take it any further.
But Cruz’s public face has been tested by a New York Times report that Cruz privately questioned Trump’s judgment.
That prompted a rebuke on Twitter from Trump, who said: “Looks like [Cruz] is getting ready to attack. I am leading by so much he must. I hope so, he will fall like all others. Will be easy!”
But Cruz has repeatedly distanced himself from those comments by issuing a statement calling the Times “misleading,” despite the paper posting audio from the fundraiser, and firing off a tweet of his own calling his rival “terrific.”
Instead, Cruz hopes that Trump fades and that his decision to avoid attacking the front-runner means Trump’s supporters will move to him.
“People don’t like to see the schoolyard squabbles, particularly in a primary,” Texas state Sen. Koni Burton, a Cruz supporter who knocked on doors for the campaign in Iowa this week, told The Hill.
Strawn, the former Iowa GOP chair, added that the calculus might also be based on the notion that a significant portion of Trump’s supporters in the state have never participated in a caucus before. That means the main factor for Trump – turnout -- is out of Cruz’s control, so there’s little use in getting down in the mud.
Not only does playing nice with Trump have its benefits, but so does his extreme views, which have helped recast Cruz as more moderate by comparison.
“Who would have thought that the following sentence would come out of people’s mouths: ‘Ted Cruz is the reasonable alternative.’ But it has because every candidacy is a reaction to the other candidates in the field,” Conway said, noting the “surprise surges” by Trump and Carson.
“They are coalescing around Cruz because voters have a reasonable expectation that their nominee will have thought about policy at least as much as they have.”
For a politician whose short career in Congress has been made in part by scorched-Earth tactics, it’s an unfamiliar ground.
“Cruz has completely changed his M.O,” O’Connell said.
“In Washington, he’s always standing up and making spectacles on the Senate floor. Now that he’s running for president, he’s trying to paint the exact opposite of how he’s acted in Washington.”
While his allies are confident in the plan, they agree with strategists that Cruz just has to continue the methodical strategy with so many unknowns still looming.
“The greatest threat to Sen. Cruz right now is what we don’t know. You can try to predict turnout, you don’t know if there’s going to be a ‘January surprise,’ will any drop out, will any fall flat on the debate stage?” Conway said.
“Nobody knows what the contours of the race will look like a month from now.”
--This report was updated at 11:44 a.m.