Cruz Walks Tightrope Between Trump and 2020

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CLEVELAND (CNN) — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz galvanized millions of grassroots followers and is almost certain to be a front-runner four years from now should Donald Trump lose.

It’s a prospective campaign that his aides discuss openly. His associates have shown an unmatched ability to organize and wreak havoc on the convention floor, for better or for worse. And he managed to earn a prime-time speaking slot without having to endorse the man who actually won.

“It’s kind of an unusual circumstance, isn’t it?” said Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a close Cruz friend, gazing at the podium where Cruz will speak Wednesday evening. “Almost unprecedented.”

Cruz is not expected to endorse Trump, a source familiar with the speech said. But people close to the campaign hope that he can give a speech that does not alienate the party’s Trump loyalists — even if Cruz himself does not say the word “Trump” from the stage.

A Cruz adviser said the speech, which he wrote himself, would be optimistic and about the path forward. Cruz will encourage Republicans to not grow dejected about conservatism’s future — similar to the well-received remarks he delivered in this city last week to the influential Council for National Policy.

The Cruz campaign declined to comment on speech.

A former Cruz rival, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, almost dared Cruz to endorse Trump.

“I hope Ted Cruz gets up tonight when he speaks tonight and keeps his word, endorses Trump,” Christie told CNN’s Jake Tapper in Cleveland on Wednesday, referring to a pledge the rivals made early in the campaign to support the GOP nominee. Cruz and Trump were also friendly early in the campaign. Christie joked that Cruz was “kissing Donald’s rear” during the first part of the campaign.

Cruz heads to the dais at a zenith of his strength: Only 45, a Latino senator who ended his campaign holding onto more political capital than he has ever enjoyed in his career.

His challenge: Remaining well-liked in a GOP that, at least for now, is under the control of a man Cruz has indicated that he does not respect. Cruz has effectively placed a risky bet that the Republican Party will judge Trump harshly and reward him in the new era for not caving.

“If skillfully played, his stock will rise,” said Randall Dunning, a Texas delegate who has misgivings about Trump.

Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort told reporters he’s “comfortable” with Cruz’s remarks.

“I’m comfortable that Sen. Cruz is going to talk about his vision for America, campaign — themes that he’s talked about in the campaign,” Manafort said at his daily briefing in Cleveland. “I think that he’ll talk about Hillary Clinton and the failures — how America can not afford to have Hillary Clinton as President. And I think he’ll say something that’ll — he’ll give a sign on where he is on Trump that’ll be pleasing to the Trump campaign and Republicans.”

Looking ahead to 2020

Cruz’s team, which has largely remained intact in the three months since he dropped out, speaks freely about a 2020 bid, and the speech is sure to be seen as an informal kickoff for that re-run if Hillary Clinton wins. A top political strategist — David Polyansky — will soon become his Senate office’s chief-of-staff, and he has kept in touch with top allies and donors that could give him an enormous head start four years from now.

Cruz is popular with a party base that is trending rightward. He earned grudging respect from the establishment for his wily political talent. And if Trump does lose and send the GOP toward soul searching, Cruz allies see him as an elixir, an unblemished Republican who stuck to principle unlike possible rivals Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan or Mike Pence, who all have backed Trump.

And it’s a power that Trump himself recognizes, granting Cruz a speaking slot weeks after he unequivocally said that no Republican would grace the stage if they didn’t endorse him. Cruz declined to, but Trump — courting a conservative movement that still does not totally trust him — conceded.

But power has risks, as Cruz World has been reminded this week.

Even though his campaign tried to keep the anti-Trump movement at arm’s length this week, his allies were tied to some of the floor activity Monday that served to embarrass the Republican National Committee and Trump. Cruz aides made clear that they did not support efforts to strip Trump of the nomination, but the activity of Lee and a key Cruz adviser — Ken Cuccinelli — in behind-the-scenes hijinks muddied the waters about where Cruz stood, especially since he declined to ever disavow the machinations.

“That’s frustrating to us Cruz people,” said Clint Moore, a rules guru from Texas who has known Cruz since he was 17. “All of us who are Cruz supporters and who wanted a roll call yesterday are tagged as Never Trump people, which is totally ridiculous.”

And his reluctance to endorse Trump has caused some Republicans to see him as a less-than-loyal soldier for the party. Should Trump lose by a close margin, perhaps, Cruz could find himself subject to recriminations from Trump voters who feel that Cruz placed his own personal ambition above the good of the party.

“It’s the candidate that gets the most votes wins. That’s just the way it is,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Cruz’s Texas colleague who told reporters that Cruz should endorse Trump. “People are going to have their own timetable and their own way of adjusting to that reality.”

Some Republicans are giving him the space to come around, confident that he just needs a few more moments of solace before making the right decision.

“He didn’t say he wasn’t going to vote for him. He just said he was not enthusiastic about it,” said Don Huffines, a Texas state senator from a powerful Dallas family. “And I think it’s easy to change his mind.”