Has Ted Cruz figured out how to handle Donald Trump?

Over the weekend, Trump called Cruz 'a little bit of a maniac.' How Cruz responded may show why the Texas senator is rising in the polls.

Susan Walsh/AP
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas waves as he is introduced to speak at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Forum in Washington on Thursday.

Has Ted Cruz figured out how to handle the volatile political entity that is Donald Trump?

It looks as if that’s possible. The key: deflecting personal attacks with a combination of humor and a hug. The result may make Mr. Trump look like he’s jabbing at a (metaphorical) pile of pillows, or maybe the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

Let’s back up a bit and start from the beginning. Senator Cruz and Trump have gotten along well since the latter jumped into the GOP race last summer.

The Texas senator has generally declined to criticize Trump’s controversial rhetoric and proposals. If anything he seems to have positioned himself to try and inherit Trump voters if the billionaire frontrunner’s campaign begins to sputter.

But in recent days it’s been clear that Trump has been loading Cruz’s coordinates into his insult-delivery artillery. The Texan’s polls numbers are rising, particularly in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, which are now only weeks away. And Cruz reportedly told a group of donors earlier this week that he doubts Trump has the “judgment” to be commander-in-chief.

Firing commenced Friday, with Trump tweeting that Cruz should not “make statements behind closed doors to his bosses.” Over the weekend, the Donald continued the Twitter-borne insults by saying “I was disappointed that Ted Cruz would speak behind my back, get caught, and then deny it.”

And in a Fox News Sunday appearance, Trump dropped a trademark personal dig, saying that Cruz is “a little bit of a maniac” in how he operates in the Senate.

Trump’s insults have clearly irked other rivals. His labeling of Jeb Bush as “low-energy” comes to mind.

But what Cruz did was pretty smart – he pretended it was all in good fun, ha-ha, look what my pal gets up to! He brushed Trump’s words aside, or tried to.
First he said that Trump is “terrific” and that a Trump-Cruz “feud” was a fabrication, that the GOP establishment’s only hope is the two of them in a cage match.

Then late Sunday he tweeted out a music video of the pop song “Maniac” from the movie “Flashdance”. (Which was about a welder who becomes an artistic dancer, but that is another story.)

“In honor of my friend @realDonaldTrump and good-hearted #Maniacs everywhere,” Cruz tweeted.

And there’s evidence this strategy is working. Cruz himself is now arguably the Iowa frontrunner – he’s got a 10 percentage point lead over Trump in a just-released Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll.

He’s made inroads into Trump’s core voter demographic, blue-collar workers without a college degree. And the Bloomberg/Register survey shows that

Trump voters view Cruz favorably – they overwhelming pick the Texan as their second presidential choice. Cruz’s current voters are less likely to have a positive view of Trump, however, and their second choice is Ben Carson, then Trump.

Cruz is solid with Iowa’s crucial evangelic vote, while Trump is not. There’s still time for lots of minds to change, but right now it’s Cruz who seems to have pulled off the best Iowa deal.

“Cruz’s strategy of embracing, rather than attacking, Trump – even after Trump makes controversial or offensive statements – appears to have served him well, at least so far,” writes Bloomberg’s Joshua Green today.

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