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Cruz is one of the few GOP presidential candidates not to severely criticize Trump's Muslim comment

Cruz is calculating that taking on Trump won't help his candidacy

CNN  — 

Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has invited the scorn of nearly every Republican presidential candidate with one notable exception: Ted Cruz.

As every GOP White House hopeful raced on Tuesday to issue harsh condemnations of Trump’s plan to forbid Muslim immigration to the United States, Cruz made significant news by barely saying much at all.

He disagreed with Trump — that’s it.

“I do not agree with his proposals. I do not think it is the right solution,” Cruz said in the Capitol. “The right solution I believe is the legislation that I have introduced.”

This was only the second time that Cruz has created any distance between himself and Trump, who have pulled away from most of the pack in Iowa, where the two of them lead in polls. In a pair of new polls released Monday, Cruz and Trump alternated in the top position.

But Cruz’s campaign has wagered that attacking Trump — who has shown tremendous political durability through all of his controversies — is a fool’s errand, more likely to sink Cruz’s numbers than Trump’s.

So for six months, Cruz has bashed reporters for trying to bait him into shots into a conflict with the New Yorker, casting the media — and not Trump — as his foil. Even when asked for policy differences with Trump — which Cruz has said are at the heart of the political campaign — the Texas senator would not miss a beat before chastising reporters or encouraging “Republican-on-Republican violence.”

He kept up that line on Wednesday, declining multiple times on Fox News to go after Trump.

“Look, I like and respect Donald Trump. I don’t anticipate that changing at all,” Cruz said. “The reason why I won’t get engaged in personal insults and attacks, i don’t think the American people care about a bunch of politicians bickering like school children.”

“I’m grateful Donald Trump is running,” he added, saying the mogul has focused the national conversation on border security.

READ: Lindsey Graham: ‘Tell Donald Trump to go to hell’

It’s a gambit that – even if political – has undoubtedly worked. The Republican candidates that have attacked the front-runner, as Trump gleefully notes, have either faded to the rearguard of the GOP race or dropped out entirely. And the trio of candidates that have been most reluctant to attack him — Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — are likely to occupy center stage at CNN’s Republican presidential debate next week in Las Vegas.

But with Cruz, Trump hasn’t just enjoyed a détente but instead a full-blown special relationship

“That was, I think, a perfect plan,” said state Sen. Lee Bright, the co-chair of Cruz’s leadership team in South Carolina. “I don’t think he could have done anything any better.”

It was hatched with Cruz’s steadfast unwillingness to judge Trump after he memorably charged that some Mexican immigrants were rapists. It was cemented at a secretive tete-a-tete at Trump Tower in July between the two Republican rivals. And it was consecrated at a highly unusual rally on Capitol Hill hosted by Cruz in September, where Trump, not Cruz, won the cameras.

Cruz was just glad those lenses showed up.

“The reason’s not complicated,” Cruz told reporters in Houston in September when asked why he invited Trump — and no one else. “When Donald arrives at an event, he brings an army of TV cameras. And Donald’s being there…means the mainstream media will cover the event.”

READ: Donald Trump talks ‘independent’ run again

Trump, for his part, has appeared willing to be used and maintain the goodwill. He has repeatedly spared Cruz from his warpath, though for months he has publicly told crowds that a Cruz blast could come should the senator emerge as an imminent political threat.

He is.

Cruz’s comment on Tuesday took on elevated meaning given how rare those retorts have come. But slowly, as pressure mounts from some Republicans close to the campaign to finally unload on Trump from the right, Cruz is uncorking some of his political talent on Trump, inching ever-slowly toward a fight into which Cruz has long said he would never wade.

Over the past month, he has poked at the “unhelpful” rhetoric in the GOP on immigration. He has told reporters he is not a “big fan” of Trump’s openness to a database of all Muslims in the U.S. And his associates are carefully monitoring things like Trump crowd sizes to gauge how much support Trump has in key battleground states.

The current brouhaha, some Cruz allies hope, will finally befell Trump.

“He needs to shut up and stay out of the Trump/Muslim controversy,” said one Republican strategist close to the campaign. “This may be what he needs to do to cement his position.”

But in the meantime, Cruzworld is more ebullient than ever before. They have always been confident that they had the financial arsenal and a favorable map to win the Republican nomination in a slog. They still have to get through one man, of course.

“As the field narrows, disagreements in philosophy have to be brought to the forefront,” said Mississippi Sen. Chris McDaniel, Cruz’s high-profile co-chair in the state. “I don’t think Ted Cruz is avoiding the conflict. I just think at this stage he sees it as unnecessary.”

CNN’s Tal Kopan contributed to this report.