Tuesday's GOP primary debate, airing on CNN from Las Vegas, will come hot on the heels of several Iowa polls that now have Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, ahead of Donald Trump and a sidelong comment from Cruz about not trusting rivals Trump or Dr. Ben Carson with the U.S. nuclear arsenal. There may be no more perfect backdrop for a Trump-Cruz brawl than Las Vegas, and it's looking like viewers might actually get one.
Cruz, who sees himself as a fellow anti-establishment Republican, has avoided directly attacking Trump for months, reluctant to alienate Trump voters who might view him as an alternative should Trump lose out. “My approach, much to the frustration of media, is to bear-hug both of them [Trump and Carson] and smother them with love,” Cruz said at a fundraising event in New York, according to audio leaked to the New York Times.
Cruz even went so far as to tweet out his pacific intentions on Friday, after the Times story came out:
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) December 11, 2015
Trump, meanwhile, continues to hammer away at any candidate within arm's reach, including Cruz:
I was disappointed that Ted Cruz would speak behind my back, get caught, and then deny it. Well, welcome to the wonderful world of politics!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2015
Now, perhaps emboldened by his momentum in the polls, Cruz has responded with a little more "bear" and a little less "hug":
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) December 13, 2015
This could be a hint that Cruz is cautiously pulling off his gloves. Regardless of which poll one takes as gospel, he's ahead in Iowa. The Iowa caucuses are still seven weeks away, but Cruz's coffers are full, and Cruz has been relentless in his ground campaign in the key state, doing more than 90 events there in little more than a month. A Cruz win in Iowa, say some political analysts, could be a death blow to the Trump campaign.
Or this could just be some fun ribbing between two men running for the highest office in the land. It might not make much sense for Cruz to abandon his strategy of nonconfrontation this late in the game, particularly when it's been proving so effective. Whether Trump responds with a Rickroll or a string of invectives might dictate the extent of the bloodshed on Tuesday night in Vegas.