Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (CC-By-SA 2.0)
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (CC-By-SA 2.0)

Many have talked about the need for the conservative Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to stop attacking one another and instead go after frontrunner Donald Trump. However, given recent results, it’s a must. Neither man’s campaign is well-served by the current back and forth.

The squabbles between the two men center around two things: campaign tactics and the machinations of past votes in the U.S. Senate. In a race in which people are hungry for political outsiders, debating such hard-to-follow, inside political baseball makes them look like consummate insiders.

For Ted Cruz, the key to reviving his campaign is to prove he can take votes away from Donald Trump that Marco Rubio can’t. To do that he has to go after Trump and challenge Trump’s status as the anti-establishment candidate. He should go after published reports in which establishment officials have said they prefer Trump to Cruz. The next six days should be spent in an all-out, no-holds- barred war to take down Donald Trump, cast doubt on his sincerity on the issues on which Trump’s played the chameleon.

Realistically, Super Tuesday could be Cruz’s Waterloo. While a majority of recent polls show Cruz leading in his home state of Texas (with one showing him tied with Trump), that’s not going to be enough to save his campaign. Polls after South Carolina have shown him falling into third in key states such as Georgia.  He needs to win another state or two on Super Tuesday. To do this, he’s going to have to capture voters who are leaning towards Trump and offer himself as a true anti-establishment alternative. To do that, he has to undermine Trump’s credibility.

Also Cruz has to think about his political future at this point. If he’s surpassed by Rubio in states like Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Arkansas, and if he just barely beats Trump in Texas, Cruz’s campaign will be effectively over.  However, he’s young enough that he could run again. If Rubio is nominated and loses, Cruz could run saying, ‘See what happens when the establishment candidate is nominated, this time we need to nominate someone who is a true conservative.”

If Trump wins the nomination, it’s much more problematic for Cruz’s political future. The most likely result of a Trump candidacy is his ignominious defeat along with Republican losses of both houses of Congress, which will give the GOP establishment cause to crow about how Hillary became president because an angry mob hijacked the nominating process and how what is need is a calm, reliable, moderate voice.

Consider how tea party challengers had trouble knocking off incumbents in 2014 after candidates such as Sharon Angle, Ken Buck, and Richard Mourdock went down in defeat in the general elections in 2010 and 2012 after riding a wave of anger. Many voters are angry and they’ve chosen Donald Trump as their vessel. However, if that makes thing worse, expect them to look for a more traditional, moderate Republican nominee.

Cruz can already be blamed for helping to mainstream Donald Trump. He spent the better part of 2015 embracing Trump, holding rallies with him and praising him in hopes that when Trump’s ultimate collapse happened, he’d be the beneficiary. It’s been a near fatal miscalculation. Attempts by Cruz supporters to call into question Trump’s fitness for office have been undermined by the fact their candidate has spent the last six months (to borrow a phrase from a key Trump endorser) palling around with him. If Cruz spends what turns out to be his final week as a candidate weakening Trump’s remaining opposition, he will be a toxic candidate in 2020, a scapegoat for all the woes which Donald Trump’s nomination and landslide defeat would bring the Republican Party.

For Marco Rubio, his position that he can unite the Republican Party would be helped if he avoided kicking the Cruz campaign in a week which could mark its effective end. If Cruz does fall flat on Super Tuesday, Rubio will have to confront Trump. Now is as good a time as any to get started. In addition, Rubio does far better as a sunny, optimistic candidate than when he’s trying to take shots at Cruz.

Rubio’s political future is even dimmer should Trump take the nomination. Rubio has been very reluctantly embraced by the party’s establishment, only after Chris Christie and Jeb Bush flamed out despite months of polling data and information on the ground that indicated neither of these men were going anywhere. The party establishment held out hope for Bush even as he was begging audiences in New Hampshire to “please clap,” rather than choosing to embrace Rubio.

The strangeness of 2016 is the only thing that has moderates like Bob Dole and Norm Coleman endorsing a candidate with a 98% American Conservative Union rating and who opposes abortion except to save the life of the mother. While there could be a second act for Cruz, this is a once-in-a lifetime shot for Florida’s junior senator.

It’s also incumbent on both men to remember who they are. While many establishment officials will reluctantly embrace a Donald Trump candidacy (particularly if Cruz emerges as the top candidate,)  both Rubio and Cruz are Christians and conservatives who care about their country and know the severe consequences of either GOP nominee Trump or President Trump. Both know neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton can be trusted with national security or the appointment of Supreme Court justices. Senator Cruz recently said he won’t gamble his daughters’ future on what President Trump might do. That’s truly the stakes in this election.

Both Senators need to prepare for two probable futures over the next week or so. If Senator Cruz fails to stop the bleeding and win enough states on Super Tuesday, he’ll be effectively finished and Senator Rubio will be the last remaining serious challenger to Donald Trump. Similarly, if Senator Cruz wins a series of states and Rubio can’t manage to convert his campaign’s infusion of endorsements and money into a win soon, his campaign will be dead in the water and Cruz will be the last remaining challenger to Donald Trump. Both men must be prepared to either take on Trump one-on-one or to get out and endorse the other.  Constantly sniping at each other won’t help this process.

This isn’t to say that they can’t make their case why they’d be the better candidate. Cruz’s stock line of, “I’m the only candidate in this race to beat Donald Trump,” and Rubio’s promise to unite party both subtlety point to the strength of each man over the other in a positive way. However, it’s time for Cruz and Rubio to put a halt to efforts to slam each other as a liberal or a liar because one of them will soon be needing the help of the other to defeat a common foe. The less bad blood between them the better.

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