Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are set to huddle in private in New York City on Wednesday, but Trump claims that he’s not sure why he even agreed to the meeting. “I don’t know why I’m meeting him, to be honest, but I do have respect for him,” the real estate mogul said of his fellow White House hopeful during an MSNBC interview Wednesday. “I respect the fact that … he came out and he came out very strongly and agreed with what I said on illegal immigration. And he came out very strongly and he came out early, and I respect that. I like him.”
The face-to-face meeting at Trump Tower has prompted plenty of interest among campaign watchers, largely because any and everything Trump-related is currently prompting plenty of interest. Still, an informal Trump-Cruz alliance would not be something to snicker at. Despite Trump’s suggestion otherwise, both men have their own clear reasons to sit down with one another—and the simple possibility of a loose partnership between the two will only add to the GOP establishment’s Trump-related heartburn.
Already, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has pleaded with the once-and-future TV reality star to tone down his inflammatory rhetoric on immigration. Cruz, though, is likely to stoke Trump’s fire. While most of the crowded GOP field has run as fast and as far as they can away from Trump’s comments painting Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, the Texas senator has defended Trump at every turn. “I like Donald Trump,” Cruz told Fox News late last month. “I think he’s terrific. I think he’s brash. I think he speaks the truth.”
The budding professional friendship could have a real impact in the GOP race in both the short- and long-term. Cruz and Trump could work in concert next month at the first primary debate to target establishment favorites like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio—both of whom supported a path to citizenship in the past—over immigration reform. The pair would make for an interesting one-two punch: Trump’s brash showmanship has helped him become a billionaire, while Cruz will be one of the strongest debaters on the Fox News stage in Cleveland. Bush and Rubio can still play the grown-up card, but tangling with Trump will be a higher-stakes game if Cruz is waiting in the wings with a more eloquent comeback than Trump is likely to offer.
Trump undoubtedly loves the idea that Cruz is willing to visit his Manhattan throne to kiss his ring. But in the longer term, an informal alliance could pay the bigger dividends for Cruz. The Donald has topped two national GOP polls in the past two weeks, but his momentum is unsustainable given how unpopular he is with Republican primary voters as a whole. Once the spotlight eventually moves on to more legitimate candidates, it’s difficult to imagine Trump soldiering on deep into the nominating contest. When Trump finally drops out, his supporters will need to find a new anti-immigrant horse to ride, and Cruz would be the obvious choice even if Trump doesn’t offer an official endorsement.
Cruz is playing a significantly longer game than Trump, and is already laying the groundwork for a protracted fight with whichever of the Big Three emerges as the GOP frontrunner after the early nominating contests. Cruz likely won’t be able to topple Bush, Rubio, or Scott Walker in a one-on-one fight, but he has the stamina and the campaign cash to play the Evangelical gadfly role that Rick Santorum did in 2012. Given that, Cruz can let Trump have the headlines this summer knowing that he’s more likely to be the one still standing next year.
Elsewhere in Slate: The GOP Is Terrified of Trump—But He’s Not the Dark Horse Jeb Bush Should Be Worried About