The Slatest

Don’t Expect Trump and Cruz to Tangle at Tuesday Night’s Debate

Donald Trump addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center Dec. 3, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The unofficial alliance between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump appears to be over.

Trump’s tweet was in response to an audio recording published last week of a private Cruz fundraiser, during which the Texas senator took a few relatively run-of-the-mill shots at the blustery billionaire and Ben Carson, suggesting that “gravity” would ultimately bring an end to their insurgent campaigns in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino, California. “Who is prepared to be a commander in chief? Who understands the threats we face? Who am I comfortable having their finger on the button?” Cruz says in the audio clip, which was published by the New York Times. “Now that’s a question of strength, but it’s also a question of judgment. And I think that is a question that is a challenging question for both of them.”

Cruz did his best to play down the comments, though apparently not enough to appease Trump, who in recent days has increasingly trained his normally scattershot fire on Cruz, who also just so happens to be rising in the polls in Iowa. During a rally in Iowa on Friday night, the Donald hit Cruz with a religion-ancestry twofer—“Not a lot of Evangelicals come out of Cuba, in all fairness,” he said—and also relived his opposition to ethanol subsidies, which is a particularly sensitive topic in the Hawkeye State. “With the ethanol, really, he’s got to come a long way, ‘cause right now he’s for the oil,” Trump said, adding: “But I understand it, oil pays him a lot of money. He’s got to be for oil, right?”

Trump then stayed on the offensive over the weekend, using a pair of cable news interviews to suggest Cruz is the one who doesn’t have the right temperament to be president. “You look at the way he’s dealt with the Senate, where he goes in there like a—frankly like a little bit of a maniac,” Trump told Fox News. “You can’t walk into the Senate and scream and call people liars and not be able to cajole and get along with people. He’ll never get anything done.” (This, from the noted get-along guy.) Cruz, for his part, responded on Twitter with a song:

As I explained last week, Cruz had been playing the long game with Trump since the real estate tycoon jumped into the race this summer. He traveled to Trump Tower to pay his respects in July, invited the Donald to his anti-Iran deal rally in September, and suggested this month he’d want Trump working in his administration. The Texas senator even broke from the rest of his party over Trump’s no-Muslims-allowed proposal, offering the most tepid rebuke of the 2016 field. “I disagree with that proposal,” Cruz told reporters. “I like Donald Trump.” Cruz’s hope is that when Trump fades, he’ll be the most obvious fall-back plan for Donald’s supporters—while looking ever-so-slightly more electable to the GOP establishment. That plan, which Cruz himself articulated on the fundraiser recording, has so far played out about as well as Cruz could have hoped, with Cruz now challenging Trump in his beloved polls and emerging as the Evangelical favorite in Iowa, which will hold the nation’s first nominating contest in just seven weeks.

The largely one-sided spat sets up the possibility that Trump and Cruz tangle during Tuesday’s Republican debate in Las Vegas. Recent history, though, suggests the prospect of such a clash is unlikely. Time and time again this year, political watchers (myself very much included) have predicted that Trump would use the prime-time spotlight to tangle with his latest challenger du jour—be it Jeb Bush this summer, or Carson this fall—only to watch Trump largely play it safe on the debate stage. When Trump does end up locked in battle, it tends to be when someone else forces the issue, like Fox News did in the first debate or Carly Fiorina did in the second. That, however, appears to be the last thing Cruz wants.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.