Debate attacks on Ted Cruz a preview of things to come

Story highlights

  • Ted Cruz weathered attacks from Tuesday's GOP debate, but his new found spotlight has made him a target
  • The next seven weeks could see a barrage of attacks against the Texas senator -- led by Marco Rubio
  • Cruz is doing fundraising Wednesday and kicks off a nationwide seven-day tour on Thursday

(CNN)Donald Trump may have given Ted Cruz a pass at Tuesday night's Republican debate, but the rest of his primary challengers do not appear ready to let him off the hook so easily.

Cruz, the new front-runner in Iowa according to some polls, encountered a GOP field on Tuesday night that was ready to attack the freshman senator, who for months has sought to avoid those profile-raising, politically dangerous exchanges. Never before was Cruz more vulnerable this cycle than he was on the debate stage in Las Vegas, where his fellow 2016 hopefuls — led by by Senate colleague Marco Rubio — appeared eager to take shots at candidates like Cruz, who has gained traction consolidating conservatives in the Hawkeye State and elsewhere.
Now more than ever, Cruz poses a political threat to the Republican field, and his opponents are mulling different ways to halt his momentum.
    "We may see a few shots coming our direction, and I suppose in a sense that's a backhanded compliment," Cruz told CNN as he entered The Venetian in Las Vegas before the debate.
    As the Republican horse race approaches a holiday season slow down, Cruz's campaign is moving to maximize his two fundamental advantages over the GOP field: his money and the map. On Wednesday, Cruz is slated to work the California fundraising circuit at a series of events meant to capitalize on his post-debate momentum. And on Thursday, Cruz will kick off a 10-city, seven-day national tour meant to reinforce that Cruz is not an Iowa-only candidate, with Cruz touching down in Super Tuesday states from Minnesota to Oklahoma.
    But between now and the next time that Republicans debate in South Carolina in mid-January, Cruz is likely to be a constant target by his GOP rivals unwilling to let Cruz ride high into Iowa.
    Thanks to early endorsements from two Hawkeye State conservative kingmakers, Cruz is leading recent Iowa polls with less than 50 days to go until the caucuses. But some allies fear those could be a long seven weeks for Cruz, with some wishing that the Texan would instead have only peaked in early January. Now, he'll have to defend his conservative credentials from rivals who see his positions as not matching his fiery rhetoric.
    Heading into Tuesday night's debate, Cruz was barreling toward one confrontation he invited — with Rubio — and one he didn't — with Trump.
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    Cruz finally got the explosive exchange that he has long sought with Rubio over a path to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally. He used the opportunity to remind Republican primary voters that the Florida senator had supported a "massive amnesty plan" that put U.S. national security at risk. But Rubio was largely successful, as Cruz put it, at trying to "muddy the waters" and "raise confusion," as the exchange ended with Cruz needing to define his own position, not Rubio's.
    "Does Ted Cruz rule out ever legalizing people that are in this country now?" Rubio asked his Senate colleague in a spirited back-and-forth full of crosstalk. "Would you rule it out?"
    Cruz then definitively did ruled out a path to legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and suggested he'd deport any who remain in the country. The answer was just the latest sign that as Cruz rises, he is methodically working to extinguish any outstanding demons with the conservative base.

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    A month ago, Cruz distanced himself from his previous plans to dramatically increase the number of high-skilled legal immigrants the U.S. accepts each year, a proposal loudly criticized by some in the conservative movement.
    And after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Cruz is presenting a much more muscular posture toward interventionism, quicker in exchanges to leave the door open to boots on the ground in the Middle East to defeat radical Islam.
    Cruz, looking to chart a third way on national security questions -- somewhere between Rubio's aggressive approach and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's resistance to get more involved in conflicts overseas. Cruz has in the past sent more dovish signals and looked to distance himself from what he sees as neoconservative rivals too excited by sending American troops to foreign lands.
    The recent posture on the issue hasn't satiated Rubio or his allies, who for weeks have emailed reporters with daily research on Cruz's past votes to curtail the phone collection powers of the National Security Agency or previous statements that do not line up with Cruz's current hardline stances toward ISIS.
    Cruz on Tuesday twice leveled that Rubio was straight up lying. But the Floridians was able to at times mock Cruz's position as idealistic and too isolationist for the terrorism age.
    "You can't carpet bomb ISIS if you don't have planes and bombs to attack them with," Rubio said of Cruz's pledge to use "overwhelming air power."
    "Well, you know, Marco has continued these attacks, and he knows they're not true," Cruz replied.
    And the attacks show no signs of stopping: During the debate, the pro-Rubio super PAC, Conservative Solutions PAC, launched a new website and digital campaign calling him "dangerously weak" and "dead wrong" on national security, a message it reiterated in a note to donors on Wednesday morning.
    On the debate stage, Rubio pinned future blame for terrorist attacks on Cruz for his NSA votes. Nearly immediately afterwards, Rubio's campaign was quick to reporters' inbox with graphics juxtaposing Cruz with Democrats Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer.
    "The next time there is an attack on this country, the first thing people are going to want to know is, 'why didn't we know about it and why didn't we stop it?'" Rubio said. "And the answer better not be because we didn't have access to records or information that would have allowed us to identify these killers before they attacked."
    Cruz himself was not always jumping to call out Rubio aggressively, instead pinning his attacks on "Washington Republicans" or "far too many Republicans." But Cruz ended up finding an attack dog in Paul, who together with Cruz formed a tag-team that tried to corner Rubio as overly hawkish.
    Yet much of the GOP field came down harshly against Cruz's brand of non-interventionism, placing his ideology on the defensive.
    At the undercard debate, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham took four separate shots at Cruz, all by name, calling him an "isolationist." New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Washington candidates like Cruz chose to "talk like they were bystanders." And former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina blasted "first-term senators who've never made an executive decision in their life."
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      Lindsey Graham brings up 'Princess Buttercup' here's why


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    Yet the most consequential fight of the night for Cruz was the one he avoided.
    In the weekend before the Vegas showdown, Trump sent foreboding signals at Cruz that he would hit him — hard — after audio leaked that the Texas senator had questioned the billionaire businessman's judgment at a private fundraiser.
    Cruz worked through the weekend to downplay the tension, but Trump and his campaign unleashed a torrent of attacks at an Iowa rally and in weekend interviews, calling Cruz a "maniac" and promising to make Cruz regret his double-talk behind closed doors.
    But in a dramatic shift, Trump abandoned attacks on Cruz's demeanor when asked to justify them in Las Vegas. Trump, a Cruz ally turned potential Cruz slayer, became a defender once again.
    "Let me just say that I have gotten to know him over the last three or four days. He has a wonderful temperament," Trump said in the final moments of the debate. "He's just fine. Don't worry about it."
    Then came the ominous warning from Trump to the man standing alongside him, four words that could foreshadow what could be an ugly seven weeks until the Iowa caucuses: "You better not attack."