Ted Cruz's pandering to both Donald Trump and Rand Paul supporters is paying off

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Ted Cruz: It's Me Vs. Donald Trump At This Point

Coming off of a strong first place victory in Iowa, Ted Cruz did better than expected in New Hampshire, edging Jeb Bush out for a third place finish. This makes Cruz the only non-Trump candidate to earn a top three finish in both Iowa and New Hampshire. That's an impressive feat when you consider that over two-thirds of Republicans are staunchly "anybody but Trump" in their political alignment.

Looking at the results and Cruz's history, if he's is good at one thing, it's pandering. I know—from personal experience—that his staunchest supporters will lunge at me with rhetorical pitchforks for making this point about their favorite "courageous conservative." But as a Texan who has followed Cruz closely since 2011 when I was an early supporter of his senate race, I've seen the ever-changing pandering magic in action.

Cruz has a way of reading the populist tea leaves, and adjusting accordingly. Abandoning his uber-establishment pedigree for greener grassroots pastures when he saw an opening against his senate primary opponent Texas Lt. Gov David Dewhurst, Cruz has since fashioned himself as a voice for the masses of disaffected and unheard conservatives.

"Make DC listen" became a rallying cry of a Ted Cruz who engaged in a series of senate speeches excoriating the Republicans who ignore their conservative base. The truth is, Cruz has a point. But he has, much to my dismay yet quite skillfully, moved his own allegedly pro-liberty goalposts with the populist winds. To his credit, it's a strategy that seems to be paying off.

Cruz has staked out a position as the intelligent populist; a viable alternative to the outsider shtick Donald Trump has embraced, but with a more intellectual and cogent approach. This has included pandering to Trump's supporters more than many conservatives are comfortable with. It has also included pandering to libertarians—a redux of the coalition he built to win his senate race in this now post-Rand Paul presidential primary.

When I was more optimistic about Cruz, approximately four years ago as Romney shored up the nomination, I wrote a piece at The Daily Caller titled, Ted Cruz Can Unite The Right. I argued that:

"In the wake of a divisive GOP presidential primary, the right desperately needs a uniter — someone who, in the mold of Ronald Reagan, can bring together the entire conservative movement. Although most Republicans now support Mitt Romney, he's not the kind of figure who's likely to inspire the grassroots right. However, there is a rising conservative star who has managed to pull support from every corner of the American right. That man is Ted Cruz, and as you may have heard, he's running an insurgent campaign for U.S. Senate in Texas."

I wish I still felt this way about Cruz, but it's difficult given his ugly turn on immigration and shocking embrace of protectionism.

Yet credit is due, because he has managed to unite the right in much the same way I predicted; I just didn't anticipate Donald Trump poisoning our movement the way he has. Though I wished Cruz would've gone on the offense against Trump sooner, there may be merit to the argument that his timing was right.

Once Rand Paul suspended his campaign, Cruz also wasted no time seeking the support of his libertarian leaning voters in New Hampshire—and those votes very well might have been the key to his strong finish, just as they were a major part of his senate coalition. Given the reactions I've seen to Paul's departure, it wouldn't surprise me if a good portion of his base opted out of the New Hampshire primary entirely (though Paul did receive 1 percent of the vote even as a non-candidate). But for the Paul supporters focused on pragmatic politics, Cruz no doubt earned much of their support.

See photos of Cruz throughout the years:
Ted Cruz through the years, with family
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Ted Cruz's pandering to both Donald Trump and Rand Paul supporters is paying off
Texas Solicitor General R. Ted Cruz, left, and Don. R. Willett, right, leave the federal courthouse after a pre-trial hearing on Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2003, in Austin, Texas. Lawyers and federal judges met earlier to plan for the upcoming redistricting trial. Willett is deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
Ted Cruz, from the Texas Attorney General's Office, speaks to members of the House Ways and Means Committee Tuesday, April 18, 2006, in Austin, Texas. Texas lawmakers embark on a 30-day special session to repair the state's method of paying for public education. Cruz explained the court rulings on school finance to the committee. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
UNITED STATES - MARCH 21: Ted Cruz (R) Texas (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call)
Texas US Senate Republican primary candidate Ted Cruz, left, talks with his father Rafael Cruz as he works at the campaign's phone bank, on election day, Tuesday, May 29, 2012, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Texas Republican Ted Cruz speaks to reporters Tuesday, May 29, 2012, in Houston. Cruz placed second behind Lt. Gov. David Dewurst in a field of nine candidates in the Republican primary race for a U.S. Senate seat. Cruz and Dewhurst will square off in a second round of voting July 31. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
U.S. Senate Candidate Ted Cruz, right, has a discussion with David Dewhurst supporter Sherri Heinzman before the Texas Federation of Republican Woman luncheon during the Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth, Texas, Friday, June 8, 2012. Cruz is competing with Dewhurst for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. They face a runoff July 31 after no one in a crowded GOP field won a majority of the votes cast in last month's primary. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz arrives for a luncheon near the state Republican convention, Friday, June 8, 2012, in Fort Worth, Texas. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
U.S. Senate candidate candidate Ted Cruz and his wife, Heidi, wave to delegates after he spoke on the final day of the state Republican convention at the FWCC on Saturday, June 9, 2012, in Fort Worth, Texas. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2012 file photo, Sen.-elect Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, smiles as he listens to campaign chief consultant Jason Johnson go over election results as they come in, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, speaks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Cruz was scheduled to speak on the scope of treaty power in the U.S. Constitution. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2014 file photo, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. Never mind dropping oil prices. U.S. producers are pushing harder than ever for the right to sell U.S. crude oil overseas. It might seem counterintuitive: Oil prices are as low as they have been at any point since 2009 and the height of the Great Recession. Depending on the projection, prices could drop further still with slowing economies across the world. Oil producers are playing a longer game, betting that long-term demand remains strong and new markets offer lucrative rewards for U.S. producers. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)
LYNCHBURG, VA - MARCH 23: Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) stands on stage his his daughter, Catherine Cruz, 4, left, his wife, Heidi Cruz, and his older sister, Caroline Cruz, 6, right, after he made a speech announcing his candidacy for a presidential bid at Liberty University on Monday March 23, 2015 in Lynchburg, VA.(Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks as he campaigns Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Paul's New Hampshire state chairman State Sen. Kevin Avard endorsed Cruz, and a chunk of his supporters seem to have followed. As The Washington Examiner reported, "Leah Wolczko, a libertarian from Goffstown, wanted to vote for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, but switched her allegiance to Cruz after Paul quit."

Said Wolczko, "I would be ecstatic if (Cruz) took second place because he would believe and transport the message that the libertarians helped make that happen and he would carry those pieces of our message where we overlap with him." She's not the only libertarian engaged in that type of thinking.

Ultimately, there's an argument to be made that at this point Cruz is the only Republican who can stop Trump. If so, there could be an uphill battle for the GOP in a general election. To date, Cruz has proven that he's adept at populist pandering aimed at the right-wing. But he's shown no signs of working to court swing voters.

At this point, given under-performances by both Rubio and Bush, plus Kasich's lack of a campaign anywhere but New Hampshire, Cruz may be the Republican's best shot at stopping Trump. But there's little case for him being the GOP's best path to the White House. The electability argument has so far been owned by Rubio (though maybe not anymore).

Where this leaves the GOP moving forward is anyone's guess.

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