Chattanooga, Tennessee (CNN)Each new speedbump that Donald Trump's presidential run hits could bolster the campaign of his competitor, Ted Cruz. Or so Cruz hopes.
Could Ted Cruz gain from Trump controversies?
1 of 24
2 of 24
3 of 24
4 of 24
5 of 24
6 of 24
7 of 24
8 of 24
9 of 24
10 of 24
11 of 24
12 of 24
13 of 24
14 of 24
15 of 24
16 of 24
17 of 24
18 of 24
19 of 24
20 of 24
21 of 24
22 of 24
23 of 24
24 of 24
Since Trump's controversies first erupted, the Texas senator has been the only Republican not to "smack" Trump, in Cruz's words. But Cruz's allies acknowledge he's not just being nice -- he's trying to preemptively collect support should the billionaire businessman's campaign falter.
After Trump's latest disparaging comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly -- which followed much-criticized rhetoric about immigrants and Sen. John McCain -- Cruz has continued to refuse to take shots at Trump, instead criticizing the media for trying to turn Republicans against each other.
It's an atypical strategy for someone whose abrasive tactics in the Senate have earned him few friends in Washington. But it may help Cruz avoid upsetting the Republican activists who have made Trump the GOP's frontrunner while cementing his status as the other presidential contender unafraid to pelt the rest of the field.
"This is not a soap opera of personalities," Cruz said this week when a local reporter in the Nashville suburb of Murfreesboro asked why he's not talking about Trump. "I'm not interested in playing that game."
Trump is still dominating the GOP race after his comments about Kelly, in which he appeared to blame her tough debate questioning last week on menstruation. New polling released on Tuesday reported he's in the lead in both Iowa and New Hampshire, though his dominance in New Hampshire has softened recently.
Still, there's a sense among voters that Cruz's fortunes are tied to Trump.
"If Cruz falls, his power base goes to Trump. And if Trump falls, his power base goes to Cruz," said Lawrence Tatum, who is leaning toward Trump over Cruz, after hearing the Texan throw slabs of red meat to a rowdy audience in Pelham, Alabama, on Sunday.
If Cruz ultimately converts Trump supporters, it will be voters like Gary Johnston, a 71-year-old Republican activist.
"If we could get an outsider, somebody that wasn't inside the Beltway in DC, I would vote for that person. And that person is Donald Trump," Johnston said here, wearing a neon-orange Roane County Tea Party t-shirt and hat. "I would vote for Trump No. 1 and Cruz No. 2."
Cruz has been at the top of Johnston's list for the last year and a half, but Trump suddenly catapulted over him when he launched his campaign, kicking Cruz to silver. And Cruz only remains there, Johnston explained after seeing Cruz at a church rally, because of the senator's pledge to not blast Trump.
"I used to think a lot of Rick Perry. I don't anymore," said Johnston, 71, of the former Texas governor, who has called on Trump to drop out of the race given his comments. "He attacked Trump so vehemently that I would not vote for him. I would never vote for Perry now."
As a growing number of Republicans learn about Trump's positions, some Cruz voters are finding him inadequately "consistent" -- a word revered by top Cruz advisers and allies who say there are virtually no positions where the Texas senator is outflanked on the right.
"Donald Trump flipped flopped on issues. He gives to candidates whose positions are repugnant to most conservatives," said Scott Austin, whose Presbyterian church outside Birmingham hosted Cruz on Sunday morning.
Trump can be an unpopular figure at churches like these. Some of the South's more religious voters -- drawn to Cruz's evangelicalism and facility with chapter and verse -- pointed out that Trump holds little appeal. Trump describes himself as Presbyterian, but he struggled at a forum last month to open up about his relationship with God and forgiveness, for example.
But a few pews away from Austin, George Shamblin, a local pastor, said there are plenty of people of faith who back Trump.
"We're voting for someone to run the country, not a chaplain," Shamblin said. "There are many more evangelicals who are pro-Trump than you'd imagine."
Cruz and Trump are in many ways similar politicians: Republicans emboldened by criticism who thrive on the counterattack. They're politicians with personal ties to the Ivy League and the elites of Wall Street who nevertheless castigate those very institutions.
Yet though the two share an appeal to the GOP's heavily male, older, and spurned base, the profiles of the voters supporting each of the men do not entirely overlap, interviews suggest. Trump remained nearly as much of a wedge candidate among those at Cruz rallies as he does in the broader GOP.
Supporters of Cruz across Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi, where the senator is campaigning this week, appeared deeply divided about the ascendance of Trump. Many of those at Cruz events said they saw him as a more polished version of Trump, admiring Cruz's ability to channel Trump's anger into the policy debate. But others saw that exact refinement as compromising what Trump represents: an impatience for political correctness that shouldn't need polish in the first place.
That's at least how the Trump campaign itself sees Cruz -- as a less authentic version of their candidate.
"Ted Cruz has positioned himself as an outsider inside Washington, but Mr. Trump is the only real outsider that won't be beholden to special interests, donors and lobbyists," a Trump campaign official, granted anonymity to speak freely, told CNN.
Take Amy Vinson, for instance. A retired schoolteacher, Vinson walked out on Cruz's speech at Connie's Fried Chicken in Tupelo, Mississippi on Tuesday.
"I love Trump because he says what he says and means what he means. I don't give a damn who he is as an individual," she said, acknowledging that she'd give Cruz -- or even Rand Paul -- a serious look if Trump faded. But that'd be a serious step down, she explained.
"He's a senator, isn't he?" she asked. "He says the same thing that senators say."
It remains unclear to what extent Cruz might be able to win over any disaffected Trump supporters. There's no guarantee that Trump will fall. Or Trump's extinguished support could ignite other candidates eyeing the right flank. And maybe Trump voters sit out the primaries and never vote at all.
More and more Republicans are shedding their reluctance to go after Trump aggressively, most recently Rand Paul, who took several swings at Trump in the first presidential debate last week and scheduled a conference call with reporters on Monday solely to bash the businessman.
"If no one stands up to a bully, a bully will just keep doing what they are doing," Paul said on the call. "We could end up with a reality TV star as nominee if we're not careful."