Donald Trump and Ted Cruz managed to preserve their bromance for most of this campaign. For tactical reasons, Cruz aligned himself with Trump from the beginning, knowing they were appealing to the same constituencies. It was a wise strategy, but it's no longer viable.
Cruz's plan, one assumes, was to hold the line until Trump sold enough books and dropped out of the race, at which point Cruz would absorb the Trump vote. Unfortunately, for Cruz, that's not happening. This is Trump's race to lose, and it's unlikely that the dynamics will change in the near future. Cruz, therefore, has no choice but to turn his guns on the Donald, which is always a risky proposition.
Things have escalated rather quickly between the two frontrunners, mostly because they're neck and neck in Iowa. A loss in Iowa, as Cruz himself conceded, could make Trump “unstoppable.” The latest Monmouth University poll in Iowa has Trump leading Cruz 30 to 23, which has sent the Cruz campaign into a near-panic.
“A vote for anyone else is a vote for Trump,” Cruz told a supporter at a recent Iowa event. “To be honest, even if you want another candidate to win the nomination, if Trump wins Iowa, that just sucks the oxygen out for everyone. So, just think about it.” The desperation is impossible to miss in that pitch. It might, however, be Cruz's only real argument at this stage.
Trump played nice with Cruz so long as the favor was returned, but now he's pulling no punches. With characteristic flair, Trump has starting hurling ad hominem attacks at Cruz, which are all the more effective because they're true. At a massive rally in Marshaltown, Iowa, Trump said what everyone already knows about Cruz: he's unlikable. “Ted is a nasty guy,” Trump told the crowd, “people don't like him. He doesn't get along with anyone. Nobody likes him. He's not been endorsed by one United States senator.”
This is why it's dangerous to engage Trump in this kind of squabble. He doesn't do policy and he can't talk about anything that matters, but he can sling dirt with the best of them. Since his supporters care even less than he does about policy, Trump has free reign to do nothing but insult people.
Now that Trump has backed out of Thursday's Republican debate (yet another alarmingly shrewd move), Cruz is frantically looking to undercut Trump's momentum. His latest gambit is to challenge Trump to a separate one-on-one debate in Iowa, just two days before the caucus. To heigthen the absurdity, super PACs supporting Cruz have vowed to donate $1.5 million to pro-Veteran charities if Trump accepts.
Cruz, predictably, is in full performative mode. “He and I are the leading candidates in this state right now, so how about the two of us, in a one-on-one debate, mano y mano,” Cruz said at a rally in Des Moines. “And I'm going to propose a venue, Western Iowa Tech in Sioux City. We already have it reserved – 8:00 Saturday night, a two hour, one-on-one debate.” Cruz added that Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh (a who's who of right-wing gasbags) could moderate the debate. “And if gentle Donald is frightened by Mark and Sean and Rush, then we'll have no moderator whatsoever. A town hall of Iowans.”
It's hard not to chuckle at all of this. The two leading Republican candidates for president are engaged in a WWE-style cat fight, complete with flamboyant challenges, grade-school personal attacks, and a faux test of manhood. Whatever happens (Trump has yet to accept Cruz's challenge), Trump has already won. This is his kind of fight, and it's the only thing he's good at. Cruz's anti-establishment strategy only works without Trump in the race. Cruz is too unlikable to appeal to any other wing of the party - even Cruz knows that. But Trump isn't going anywhere, and in a race to shamelessly one-up each other, he has the upper hand.