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Ted Cruz still wants to be president. Can he win over the Trump faithful?

His 2016 bid went badly. But if Trump stays out in 2024, Cruz is sure to make another try.
Image: Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, talks with reporters before a vote in the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 15.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images file

Ted Cruz has long wanted to be president.

Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, has never really danced around his ambition — including now that his party is in a holding pattern waiting to see whether former President Donald Trump runs again.

"The race in '24 will very much hinge on whatever President Trump decides to do," Cruz said in an interview with NBC News. "President Trump is going to make his decision whether or not he runs, or nobody else is going to make that decision for him. And I expect that everyone else will react accordingly when he does make that decision."

He has been open about his interest in another run at the presidency, telling The Truth Gazette, a conservative teenagers’ website, in December that his second-place finish in the 2016 primaries gives him confidence he could win. "There's a reason historically that the runner-up is almost always the next nominee," he said, referring to a handful of second-place finishers who went on to win the nomination.

If — or when — Cruz does make another run, he’s likely to start from behind. Early surveys of the 2024 GOP field show Cruz behind Trump and trailing others, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A Morning Consult/Politico survey released last week found Cruz garnering 2 percent support in a GOP primary, while Trump was backed by 50 percent of Republican voters.

“I don't think he would run against Trump,” a person close to Cruz said. “I don't know that Trump's going to run. But if Trump doesn't run, I'm quite certain he will run.”

While he may be waiting on Trump to make a decision, he doesn’t appear to be waiting to do the behind-the-scenes work of building another presidential campaign.

Many of the leaders of his 2016 campaign, including political strategists Jeff Roe and David Polyansky, remain close advisers. A Republican Senate aide from another office pointed out that Cruz has already made hires in his office aimed at 2024 — including that of Steve Guest, the former Republican National Committee rapid response director, who is now one of his senior advisers.

But nearly a dozen Republicans whom NBC News spoke with about Cruz, including Cruz allies and one-time aides, are divided over whether he could prevail in another run, even in a post-Trump scenario.

Some see Cruz as being the most ready to take charge post-Trump. But others argue that he can’t overcome the damage Trump inflicted on him during the primary fight in 2016. And still more are dejected by how Cruz handled himself after Biden won, leading election objections and recently softening his remarks about Capitol rioters’ being terrorists.

It was that most recent episode, which played out on Fox News, that left some Republicans in Washington cringing and wondering whether Cruz has his finger on the pulse of voters.

On the eve of the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Cruz referred to the riot as a "terrorist attack" — a comment he had made more than a dozen times previously. But this time, he faced an onslaught of criticism in conservative media. On Fox News’ most-watched program, Tucker Carlson assailed him.

The next day, Cruz appeared on Carlson's program, saying he had made “a mistake” and calling his phrasing “sloppy” and “frankly dumb,” adding that he meant to describe only those who assaulted police officers as terrorists.

But it was unlikely to be enough to win over the most fervent of Trump’s backers.

“America First deplorables would never vote for Ted Cruz,” said John Fredericks, the chair of Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns in Virginia, as well as a host on the right-wing Real America’s Voice platform. “Especially after the way he threw Trump under the bus and called those people that went to the rally [terrorists] and all that. I mean, the guy’s done. Forget it.”

Cruz defended his appearance.

"Look, I needed to do that interview," Cruz said, adding that his original comments "were being taken out of context."

A former Cruz aide, who made a point to express how enjoyable it was to work for Cruz, said the walk-back was “a huge miscalculation” that disheartened many.

“Funny enough, people still operate in fear,” this person said. “I guess it's less about Trump and more about his voters.”

Polyansky, Cruz’s former chief of staff, argued that Cruz has recovered before from other “punches to the gut” like his appearance on Carlson’s show, whether it was the backlash he faced at the 2016 GOP convention for telling attendees to “vote your conscience” or when he briefly left Texas for Cancún, Mexico, with his family as millions of his constituents were without power in a brutal winter storm.

“In the heat of the moment, with the media snarling and swirling, it’s easy to look at these moments as career enders,” Polyansky said. “And maybe for other politicians, things like this would cripple them. But for him, he's got backbone and a trusted brand. Even if you don't like him, you kind of have to respect him, even if you do it while grumbling. Because he always bounces back.”

‘Mood ring of American politics’

In reality, Cruz has been eying a presidential bid from the day he arrived in Washington.

During the second term of the Obama administration, Cruz, newly elected to the Senate, rose to prominence by trying to obstruct the president's agenda, leading a government shutdown and infuriating members of both parties. He lost the 2016 Republican primary campaign to Trump, a race that turned deeply personal as Trump attacked his wife and parents.

Soon after, he went from refusing to endorse Trump on the floor of the Republican convention to becoming one of his stalwart defenders in Congress. He also worked to mend fences with his fellow Senate Republicans, many of whom publicly trashed him for not being much of a team player.

“Like anyone, you learn over time,” Cruz said. “I've been through a lot more battles today than I had 10 years ago. You know, my critics might doubt it. But I do think some maturity and some wisdom is possible going through the fire. And so the way I approach a battle today reflects a decade of experience that I didn't have in 2013.”

When Trump called on lawmakers of his own party to try to stop Biden’s election, it was Cruz who led a group to object to the certified electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021 — sticking with his objections even after a pro-Trump mob's deadly attack on the Capitol. (Asked whether, one year later, he now feels confident in the results after no evidence of widespread fraud materialized, Cruz responded, “Of course not.”)

Terry Sullivan, who ran GOP Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, said he thinks Cruz could mount a formidable campaign in the future but that “Trump would just eat him alive” if he tried for a primary rematch.

“As we saw with the Tucker Carlson thing, he’s not someone who has a huge profile in courage,” he said, adding, “Ted Cruz is the mood ring of American politics. He'll turn whatever color the current emotions of the party are. ... He has evolved. He can continually evolve to where the electorate is.”

Still, there’s only so much Cruz can do in a GOP in which much of the infrastructure is still centered on Trump. Rick Tyler, who was the communications director for Cruz's 2016 campaign, said Cruz “does not know how to navigate the political ground that Donald Trump has now created, which is only destructive to the Republican Party.”

“And the only one who can navigate and win in that is Donald Trump,” said Tyler, who is a vocal critic of the former president. “Because [Trump] doesn't actually have a governing philosophy.”

Ron Nehring, a spokesman for Cruz’s 2016 bid, said, however, that it would be a “mistake” to count Cruz out as the GOP enters the next election cycle.

“It's a mistake, and an oft-repeated mistake, to discount Sen. Cruz and what he's been able to accomplish and what he can accomplish,” Nehring said.