WHITEFIELD, N.H. — Ted Cruz did not have to say a cross word about Scott Walker. Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal faded on their own. And when Ben Carson briefly rocketed to the top of the Iowa polls, Mr. Cruz and his team stayed cool, confident that the neurosurgeon’s support would wither.
But after months of assiduously following his playbook, with expected rivals for evangelical and Tea Party support exiting the race or languishing in the polls, Mr. Cruz is being forced to confront the election season’s great mystery:
How do you solve a problem like Donald Trump?
For days, Mr. Cruz — convinced, at last, that Mr. Trump will not tire from throwing punches — has been testing several strategies in succession. True to form, when dealing with Mr. Trump, the path has been complicated.
Graphic | 2016 Primary Calendar and Results The 2016 calendar is still fluid, with primary and caucus dates uncertain in more than a dozen states. Both parties are requiring all states but four to wait until March to hold their nominating contests or face delegate penalties.
During a long bus tour of Iowa, Mr. Cruz noted that he lacked a plane with his name on it — a barely veiled effort to cast Mr. Trump as anathema to the “Iowa way” of retail campaigning. But then the state’s six-term Republican governor, Terry Branstad — who preaches to presidential candidates the importance of visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties — urged Mr. Cruz’s defeat.
Mr. Cruz has described Mr. Trump as “someone who’s a dealmaker, who will capitulate” to the Washington establishment. On Wednesday in Hollis, N.H., he said insiders were “abandoning Marco Rubio” to support Mr. Trump because he, unlike Mr. Cruz, would not interfere with their “gravy train.” But the establishment label has shown few immediate signs of sticking to a rival better known for business threats, lawsuits and a go-it-alone style than for seeking consensus.
Most pointedly, Mr. Cruz has detailed Mr. Trump’s long history of liberal positions and contributions to Democratic boogeymen, from the Clintons to Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago. But this line of attack and Mr. Cruz’s broader case that conservatives are coalescing around him were undercut, at least briefly, by Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Mr. Trump on Tuesday.
“Even today, the G.O.P. machine, they’re attacking their own front-runner,” Mrs. Palin, the running mate of John McCain in 2008, said alongside Mr. Trump on Wednesday in Tulsa, Okla., adding: “Not every conservative has had the guts to talk about the real issues.”
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It would be difficult to suggest that a figure so ridiculed by the political class as Mrs. Palin is part of the “Washington cartel” that Mr. Cruz inveighs against. And he has not tried.
This was not the campaign Mr. Cruz expected. Since his 2012 run for the Senate in Texas and through his fights in Washington, Mr. Cruz has portrayed himself as an uncompromising conservative and his opponents as enablers of a corrupt establishment.
But that neat, white hat/black hat construct has been scrambled by the rise of Mr. Trump, a candidate willing to go even further outside the traditional bounds of political conduct.
Notably, Mr. Cruz’s aides do not appear so unnerved by Mr. Trump that they feel compelled to run commercials attacking him, even in Iowa, where Mr. Trump has pulled even with Mr. Cruz in the polls. Senior aides to Mr. Cruz said Wednesday that they had no immediate plans to go after Mr. Trump on television.
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For now, Mr. Cruz is seizing on Mr. Trump’s absence from the critical fights — especially over immigration — that have defined the senator’s congressional career.
“I would suggest,” Mr. Cruz said here on Monday, testing the message before voters for the first time, “you have reason to doubt the credibility of the promises of a political candidate who discovers the issue after he announces for president.”
Perhaps the surest sign of Mr. Cruz’s bind has been his sharpening tone. After months not only demurring but scolding reporters who invited him to take shots at Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz abruptly changed course last week. He derisively said Mr. Trump embodied “New York values,” poked fun at his knowledge of foreign affairs and suggested that he was taking his cues from Democrats.
Mr. Cruz said those remarks merely signaled a new phase of the race, as if he were responding to the calendar. But the escalation also came after Mr. Trump had made an issue of Mr. Cruz’s Canadian birth, questioning his eligibility for the presidency, and disparaged Mr. Cruz’s personality. Yet while Mr. Cruz pledges to contrast himself with Mr. Trump only on matters of policy, he has ventured into far more personal territory. Calling Mr. Trump “rattled” and “nervous,” he has portrayed Mr. Trump as unsteady, fixated on social media and his own popularity.
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“In terms of a commander in chief, we ought to have someone who isn’t springing out of bed to tweet in a frantic response to the latest polls,” Mr. Cruz said in Fort Mill, S.C.
While Mr. Cruz cited a poll showing him defeating Mr. Trump head-to-head in a crowded Republican field, he remains well behind in most national surveys. Asked in an interview if other candidates needed to drop out for Mr. Trump to lose, Mr. Cruz said, “As a practical matter, the field is winnowing already.”
He played down any particular focus on Mr. Trump’s followers. “Reporters sometimes, you know, ask suspiciously, ‘Are you trying to take Donald Trump’s supporters?’ ” he said. “Absolutely. Every single one of them. And I’m trying to take every one of Jeb Bush’s supporters, and Chris Christie’s, and Marco Rubio’s, and everyone else.”
But it is clear Mr. Cruz’s attention is focused on the man he spent much of 2015 bathing in praise. At a town hall meeting Wednesday in Exeter, N.H., Mr. Cruz suggested Mr. Trump had kowtowed to the Iowa political establishment by favoring subsidies for the ethanol industry.
The day before, Mr. Cruz sought to exploit the issue in a fund-raising plea, saying that Mr. Branstad had called for his defeat because he and one of his sons were protecting subsidies.
“The longest-serving Republican career politician in the nation and his politically connected family,” Mr. Cruz wrote, “is coordinating with establishment politicians and ‘super PACs’ to lead an 11th-hour attack against us and sink our campaign.”
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