Despite his impressive victory over
The fiery Texas senator pushed into New York on Wednesday well aware of the challenges ahead, swapping his evangelical Christian message for an urban-focused economic one, and making nice with Republican Party leaders whose backing he needs, even though he knows he can't fully embrace or trust their support.
As the No. 2 candidate in the delegate tally behind Trump, Cruz is the party's best shot at preventing the New York businessman from securing the nomination. But many Republicans doubt the conservative Cruz will fare any better against a Democrat in November.
So even as GOP stalwarts publicly endorse Cruz, many are jockeying behind the scenes to find an alternative candidate for what looks likely to be a contested convention in July. "The second he's not useful, the GOP dumps him," tweeted Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist and CNN contributor, who likened Cruz to an escort hired for a class reunion when you can't get a date.
Cruz's top goal is to stop the front-runner from collecting the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination outright, something Trump is far less likely to achieve after Cruz's decisive win in Wisconsin on Tuesday.
But aware that Republican leaders are not sold on his candidacy, Cruz is also working furiously at the state level to install his supporters as convention delegates who will tip his way at the crucial moment. While many of those delegates will be obligated to vote for Trump on a first or second ballot in Cleveland, they will be freed if no clear victor emerges. Already, Cruz's campaign has quietly locked up their support in several states — even in places Trump won.
It's precisely the kind of methodical ground game and grueling fight that Cruz excels at. The self-described former high school nerd, who memorized the Constitution and played a starring role on the debate team, used similar determination in his unlikely campaign for the Senate.
"We prepared for this months ago," said Saul Anuzis, a former GOP chairman in Michigan who is assembling Cruz supporters to be elected to the national convention. "Our path was always as a conservative alternative through the grass roots. That's where the base is. That's where the army is."
But Cruz had hoped to be further along in the delegate count by this point, as the campaign moves into the mid-Atlantic primaries. He has 517 delegates to Trump's 743. Cruz's winnings were slimmer than expected in the Southern and Midwestern states where Cruz's religious-tinged conservatism was expected to play better with voters.
Now, to appeal to Yankee sensibilities, the cowboy-boot wearing Cruz is pivoting away from the tea-party conservatism that brought him this far toward a more mainstream, three-pronged message about "jobs, freedom and security" that helped him overtake Trump in Wisconsin.
While Cruz still derides what he calls the "Washington cartel," he is expected to soften his Wall Street attack lines and talk less about religion. "Truck drivers and mechanics and plumbers and steelworkers, union members and the men and women with calluses on your hands, once again will see wages rising," he promised in his victory night speech. "Working moms struggling to make ends meet will see take-home pay rising, the cost of living falling."
With no other viable options, the Republican establishment has warmed to Cruz's candidacy, including endorsements from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen.
For example, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's backing may have helped Cruz sweep Utah, but it was not an unconditional endorsement. Romney said only that he would vote for Cruz in the Utah caucus, not that he would support Cruz at a brokered convention in July.
"Many of them still wish for the magic unicorn to come in," said Tim Miller, a spokesman for the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC.
On Capitol Hill, Cruz, who once publicly accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of lying and pushed an anti-Obamacare strategy that led to the unpopular 2013 government shutdown, is still despised by many.
Elements of the anti-Trump forces that boosted Cruz in Wisconsin are expected to switch to
"Our goal is to force an open convention," said Rory Cooper, spokesman for the Never Trump super PAC and former top aide to
Trump has begun to mock Cruz's newfound alliance with Republican leaders, calling the Texas senator a "Trojan horse" for the establishment. It's a label that could sting since Cruz has built his popularity on being a Washington outsider.
Cruz must be careful not to alienate the grass-roots conservative activists he'll need in the delegate race ahead. But so far he's well ahead of Trump in lining up delegates who would eventually fall his way.
Even in states where Trump had big primary victories — Arizona, Louisiana, Georgia, Virginia — the Cruz team is stacking its allies into the delegate-selection process.
Last Saturday, the bulk of North Dakota's delegates went to Cruz supporters after he was the only candidate to take a detour from Wisconsin to stump for their votes. Another Cruz sweep is expected this weekend when delegates are selected in Colorado.
Trump's team is playing catch-up. "That's an inherent advantage the Cruz campaign has — so many of his supporters already understand the process," said Matt Strawn, a former GOP chairman in Iowa, where the Cruz team is amassing delegates ahead of the state convention.
For a candidate who has few friends in the establishment and lacks the populist-pleasing TV personality of Trump, the granular grind may be Cruz's best shot at the nomination.
"That's the whole game now — now every state is actually going to be meaningful," said Rick Tyler, an MSNBC commentator and former top Cruz aide. "You have to be in the states — you have to build relationships with them. That's what they're doing."