Is Ted Cruz a reluctant GOP's last chance against Donald Trump?

Ted Cruz is starting to look like the only presidential candidate who can slow Donald Trump's primary momentum.

Paul Sancya/AP/File
Republican presidential candidates, businessman Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, argue during a Republican presidential primary debate at Fox Theatre in Detroit, March 3.

It's no secret that Sen. Ted Cruz is not well liked by the Republican establishment.

Less than two months ago, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham famously described choosing between GOP frontrunners Donald Trump and Senator Cruz "like being shot or poisoned."

“If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you," Senator Graham joked.

Cruz famously earned the nickname “wacko bird” from Arizona Sen. John McCain when he filibustered the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director. Others have described the Texas Senator as “abrasive,” “arrogant,” and “creepy.”

But then a funny thing happened: The GOP began warming to him.

“Ted has made the best case thus far that he can be the alternative to Trump," said one US senator on Sunday's "Meet the Press." “At the end of the day, I know what I’m getting with Ted Cruz. If Ted is the alternative to Trump, at least he’s a conservative Republican.”

The senator who made that comment? Graham, formerly an avowed Cruz-hater.

"We are now hearing some voices, like Lindsay Graham, who indicate they'll hold their noses and support Cruz if it means avoiding a Trump general election disaster," says David Ryden, a professor of political science at Hope College in Michigan. "More significantly, the establishment voices, like Bob Dole, for example, who previously said they'd opt for Trump over Cruz have completely disappeared."

It's a sign of how desperate the situation has become, according some in the GOP.

The long line of establishment candidates the GOP had pinned their anti-Trump hopes on – Gov. Scott Walker, former Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio – sputtered out or lost momentum. Now, after another "Super" primary day where Senator Rubio underperformed expectations, it appears many party elites are holding their noses and turning to their final hope against Trump: Cruz.

"He's seen as the last, least bad choice for derailing Trump," says Professor Ryden.

Unlike favorite-son Rubio who all but disintegrated in recent weeks, Cruz has repeatedly exceeded expectations. He now appears to be the last man standing who can beat Trump.

Cruz is trailing Trump by just three points in a new national poll, he has notched seven primary and caucus wins, and he's collected 359 delegates – far more than Rubio or the often-overlooked Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

It's enough for some GOP operatives to put their ideological differences aside and begin lining up behind Cruz.

“He seems to be the only guy who’s got some momentum, and is probably the best situated if there is anybody out there to beat Trump,” Austin Barbour, a prominent Mississippi-based GOP operative told Politico. “That’s why there are many people like me – Ted Cruz wouldn’t have been our first choice, but as we go through the process, we’re reevaluating our vote, and he seems to be the guy at the top of the list.”

One reason Republicans are coming around to Cruz: They trust him more on filling the Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia's death, says Ryden.

"The most compelling reason for the acceptance of Cruz comes down to the Supreme Court and the open Scalia seat," he says. "Establishment conservatives who otherwise despise Cruz know with certainty that he would do right with the Court. He has credibility as a genuine constitutional conservative, and could be trusted to follow through on pledges to nominate real conservative jurists. No one trusts Trump to do likewise."

If the GOP coalesces around Cruz instead of Trump, the centrist wing of the party will be forced to stretch far to the right. The Texas senator supports repealing Obamacare, abolishing the IRS, cutting federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and deporting undocumented immigrants en masse. He opposes same-sex marriage, civil unions, and abortion, except in rare cases.

For Cruz, who has prided himself on being disliked by his Senate colleagues – or, as he calls them, "the Washington cartel" – it might be time to court that cartel. Collecting endorsements and donations may require rapprochement, an art at which the famously abrasive senator isn't known to excel. 

So far, Cruz, who once called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a "liar" on the Senate floor, has not won the endorsement of a single senator.

But maybe his bristly persona serves him, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch told the Washington Post.

“He’s come a long way the way he is, and I don’t think changing his personality is a requisite. I think he’s got a tough, strong personality," he said. "A lot of people think that would be good for the presidency."

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