Ted Cruz keeps playing political mind games with Marco Rubio.
He quietly opened 10 campaign offices across Rubio’s home state of Florida. His wife, Heidi Cruz, accepted an invitation to a Miami fundraiser Thursday. He scheduled a last-minute rally in Rubio’s home town of Miami.
And when he showed up at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus on Wednesday morning, Cruz made sure to grab the headlines: He announced the surprise endorsement of former Republican presidential rival Carly Fiorina.
“Our message today is one of unity,” Cruz said after Fiorina trumpeted that Cruz “has won over and over and over.”
“Some people are now saying, ‘Well, Donald Trump wouldn’t be so bad. OK, maybe he’s a liberal, maybe he’s a fraud, but at least he’s a dealmaker,” Fiorina said, declaring herself “horrified” by Trump. “The truth is that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are two sides of the same coin. They aren’t going to reform the system. They are the system.”
Cruz has hardly campaigned in Florida ahead of Tuesday’s primary. Before Wednesday, he had held a single public event in the state, in Orlando in November. He’s invested no money on television, though an allied super PAC plans to an ad buy.
Polls show Cruz lagging behind Donald Trump and Rubio in Florida. The Texas senator consistently polls between 16-19 percent. He’s got little obvious hope to pull off a win.
But he says he can. And if he can’t — though he won’t admit it — he can play spoiler to Rubio in Rubio’s must-win home state.
“God bless Miami!” Cruz said as he basked in chants of “You go, Ted!” from a couple of hundred people Wednesday. “Y’all know how to make a Cuban feel welcome.”
He spoke about his Cuban-born immigrant father taking a job washing dishes. He made fun of Trump’s Tuesday night news conference in his Palm Beach estate of Mar-A-Lago, which featured such an array of products — and Trump’s defense of them — that it briefly looked like a QVC infomercial. “I don’t have any steaks to sell,” Cruz quipped.
But above all, Cruz poked at Rubio.
Rubio came dead last in four Tuesday primaries won by Trump (Michigan, Mississippi and Hawaii) and Cruz (Idaho). The Florida senator didn’t pick up a single delegate for the nomination.
It’s “abundantly clear,” Cruz said, that only he and Trump can win.
“If this race continues and continues to narrow to a two-man race, Donald Trump loses and loses bad,” Cruz told the crowd. “It’s easy to talk about the party coming together, but talk without action, words without action, are empty.”
He was even more explicit with reporters afterward, speaking into local TV cameras to reach voters directly.
“If you don’t want to see Donald Trump as the nominee, if you don’t want to hand the general election on a silver platter to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, then I ask you to join us,” he said. “If you were a Jeb [Bush] supporter. If you’re a Marco supporter now. If you’re a [John] Kasich supporter: We welcome you to our team.”
But wouldn’t dividing the anti-Trump vote between Cruz and Rubio effectively hand Trump Florida’s 99 delegates?
Cruz blamed “the media” for writing him off, and insisted he’s campaigning to win outright. But the message to Rubio — and, to a lesser extent, Kasich — was clear.
“Donald benefits when there are multiple candidates that are splintering the opposition,” he said.
Cruz stopped just short of calling on Rubio to drop out, as Trump has done. The man who introduced him at the rally, however — Manny Roman, Cruz’s Miami-Dade County campaign chairman — explicitly called for Rubio’s exit.
“He’s not a bad guy,” Roman said of Rubio. “And now he has a chance to do the right thing.”
Rubio has rejected any suggestion that he should get out of the race. It’s something he may have to get used to repeating, given the intense attention on Florida. Republicans will debate Thursday night at the University of Miami.
Unwilling to let Cruz hog the morning spotlight, the Rubio campaign sent its Florida spokesman, Alex Burgos, and a supporter, Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez, to Cruz’s rally to get a word in with reporters.
Suarez repeated Rubio’s line that “a vote for Ted Cruz is a vote for Donald Trump” and accused Cruz of campaign chicanery in trying to derail Rubio’s Florida chances.
“We want to make sure that our supporters understand they need to go out and vote,” Suarez said. “What we see happening is a lot of subterfuge to try to manipulate the outcome.”
Cruz voters themselves said Rubio should have bowed out after a poor Super Tuesday showing last week in which he claimed victory in a single state, Minnesota. Since then, Rubio has only placed first again in Puerto Rico.
“In order to stop Trump, we have to back Cruz,” said Jorge Lendeborg, a 46-year-old political consultant from Miami Lakes. “It’s the only way that Marco Rubio will drop out after Florida — we have to have a two-man race.”
“Definitely he needs to drop out,” said Ydania Dienstag, a 50-year-old real-estate broker from South Miami. “He doesn’t have a chance of winning, and right now, he’s taking votes from Cruz.”
Dienstag acknowledged Trump will probably win Florida but said that’s not enough reason for his detractors to join forces behind Rubio to try to force a contested convention in July.
“I don’t believe in going to the convention — let the voters decide,” she said. “We lived through seven years of Obama. We can live through four years of Trump.”