Rivals Cruz, Trump play nice en route to 2016

Washington CNN  — 

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and their wives were scheduled to have lunch in New York City in June, before the real estate mogul became a candidate for president.

Senate votes intervened and Cruz couldn’t make it and the two postponed.

A month later, the two Republican presidential candidates – this time, without their wives – finally got together Wednesday afternoon at Trump Tower. Trump said Cruz had called him Tuesday to ask for the meeting.

And in that time, what would have been a low-key meeting took on new importance. Trump surged to first place in the GOP primary polls, and Cruz’s warm words toward Trump separated him from a crowd of candidates denouncing the real estate mogul over his controversial remarks about undocumented immigrants.

RELATED: Cruz, Trump had ‘a delightful conversation’

From the outside, Wednesday’s meeting made it look like a calculating Cruz was actually betting against Trump – cozying up to him in hopes of earning an endorsement if Trump’s campaign ultimately collapses.

But after the meeting, Cruz said that wasn’t happened at all.

“We had a conversation about the race,” Cruz said. “He’s running, I’m running and we both agreed that we started out as friends and will end as friends.”

“Donald and I have gotten together and visited a number of times before he was a presidential candidate, and it was a good visit. It was the first time we’ve really sat down since he launched, and so we had a good conversation,” Cruz said. “And I enjoy Donald. He’s one of a kind.”

The two have praised each other on the campaign trail in recent weeks.

Before heading to New York, Cruz said on Capitol Hill Wednesday that he’s “a big fan of Donald Trump.”

He praised Trump as a “bold, brash voice” and criticized – though not by name – other GOP contenders who “go out of their way to smack Donald Trump.”

Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said the fact that the two got together – despite other GOP candidates like Jeb Bush turning against Trump – shouldn’t be surprising, since during the 2012 campaign most Republican candidates, and some non-candidates like Sarah Palin, sought meetings with Trump.

“They are both anti-Establishment candidates unafraid to shake up the system,” Conway said. “Cruz’s approach is different. He has said he will level no personal insults against other candidates. Clearly, in going foursquare after Jeb and (Karl) Rove, Trump has not made a similar promise.”

Trump had met with many other GOP presidential hopefuls, including Cruz, in the months before he decided to launch his own bid. Trump also donated $5,000 to Cruz’s political action committee last year.

Other political observers said Cruz’s meeting – highly publicized after Trump announced it would happen during an appearance on MSNBC – was a savvy play for conservative hardliners’ support in case those voters ultimately decide against supporting Trump.

“Politically this is a smart move by Cruz. While no one can know for sure, there is a fair to good chance Trump will drop out or cease active campaigning at some point,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“Who will inherit Trump’s backers? Certainly not Jeb Bush. And Trump has criticized others by name, too,” he said.”Should Trump leave the field, Ted Cruz would be a likely beneficiary. He is considered an immigration hardliner, like Trump. And Cruz is showing Trump respect, and Trump has already shown us that he has a good memory for respect and slights.”