Trump-Cruz gap getting wider

David Shribman

This is the Ted Cruz moment.

There was nothing inevitable about it, nor is there anything conventional about him. Born in Canada, elected to the Senate from Alberta’s muscular cousin, Texas, Cruz has until this month been overshadowed by his slightly younger fellow Cuban-American, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. No more. Cruz has soared to the lead in almost every poll in Iowa, eclipsing even Donald Trump, and ranks second to the billionaire businessman in almost every national poll.

If there is an alternative to Trump right now it is Cruz. That itself is not only astonishing but also significant.

Astonishing: Because only last month, Cruz, who turns 45 Tuesday, trailed Trump by margins well into double digits.

Significant: Because Cruz has deliberately and carefully courted Trump’s support base even as he was building his own. Though the two are temperamentally and rhetorically different, they draw on many of the same themes, and if you add their support together, you get a remarkable congruence: 53 percent of Republican support in the Iowa caucuses and 53 percent of Republican support nationally. It may be the first time ever that the Iowa and national numbers have converged exactly.

More significance: This tells us that the well of alienation within the Republican Party is even deeper than earlier surveys suggested. The Duo of Discontent has tapped into — perhaps even, by virtue of their fiery rhetoric and distilled contempt for the GOP establishment, expanded — a growing rebellion in American politics.

And so while it is tempting to argue that Trump is an American original, tycoons, outsiders, agitators and media phenoms have been a big part of our political tradition. The real American original may be Cruz., particularly since his American story begins in the peaceable kingdom north of the 49th parallel with a mother holding a degree from Rice University and a father who got his education in the rebellion in Batista Cuba.

Cruz is blazingly smart, and blazingly fast on his feet. Sometimes speed kills — he hasn’t walked back his comment about taking the battle to the Islamic State and seeking to discover “if sand can glow in the dark” — but overall his quickness is a substantial asset.

Cruz no longer is cozying up to Trump and, with remarks questioning his rival’s judgment, is seeking to extend the distance separating them even as he pursues Trump’s supporters. In a Cruz television ad critical of Obama’s Islamic State policy, the narrator opens by saying, “There’s a scorpion in the desert.” Trump might be excused if he came to realize that there now is a scorpion in the prairies as well.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.