For a moment it looked like Sen. Ted Cruz was going to pull it off.
There he was onstage at the Republican National Convention at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. After name-checking Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump exactly once, Cruz was working his way through a remarkable speech about freedom — he mostly stuck to broad terms and concepts like "freedom" and "democracy" to avoid going anywhere near supporting Trump — when the audience realized he had no intention of actually endorsing the anointed candidate. The New York delegation started booing first.
In his navy blue suit, red tie with the ubiquitous American flag pin secured firmly on his left lapel, Cruz strode onto the stage to thunderous cheers and applause. Technically he was there to help whip up enthusiasm for 2016, to give the party hope, to perhaps, possibly, maybe finally endorse Trump.
"I want to congratulate Donald Trump on winning the nomination last night," Cruz said at the start of his speech. It was the only time he mentioned the GOP presidential candidate by name throughout his 30-minute address. Clearly the wounds sustained by Cruz in the final weeks of the fight to win the nomination still haven't quite healed.
In the lead up to Cruz's speech, there was plenty of speculation about what exactly Cruz would say about Trump. Cruz and Trump had a fascinating dynamic on the campaign trail.
Initially, when both were considered dark horses in the packed GOP field of presidential contenders, Cruz went out of his way to cultivate at least the appearance of a buddy-buddy dynamic with the Donald. They smiled at each other and said nice things, each likely hoping they could use the other to pull ahead in the race for the GOP nod.
And just as expected, the "friendship" lasted right up until most of the competitors cleared the field, leaving Trump and Cruz to duke it out in a fiercely fought primary battle for Republican convention delegates. (Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich also hung on for a while, but, well, neither of them were ever going to win so they barely count.)
Cruz was not pulling any punches by the time the duo got to the Indiana primary in May, where Cruz called Trump "utterly amoral," "narcissistic," a "serial philanderer" and a "pathological liar."
Of course, that came after Trump tried to link Cruz's father to the JFK assassination and made some snide, nasty remarks about the appearance of Cruz's wife, Heidi.
Ultimately, Trump defied all expectations (and some say logic, reason, and the argument God doesn't have a sense of humor) securing 1,542 convention votes to Cruz's 563 votes, according to CNN. However, it's been clear since then if Trump was on fire Cruz probably wouldn't deign to spit on the man to try and put the fire out. When Cruz appeared at the convention on Wednesday with his father by his side, it was pretty obvious the junior Texas senator hadn't forgotten the insult to his dad.
But still Cruz agreed to take the stage in Cleveland. Not everyone did. A lot of big name Republicans declined to attend the convention at all. Former President George H.W. Bush and his son, former President George W. Bush, announced they were sitting this one out, along with Jeb Bush, the guy who everyone had assumed would become the actual candidate way back when all this started and who proved in spectacular fashion that sometimes the talent for campaigning isn't genetic. Kasich has been dodging the convention even though it's in his own state.
Former Republican presidential candidates Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney also took a pass on showing up and doing anything that even smelled like approving of Trump's candidacy. (Plus McCain is in the middle of a re-election fight and right now he and all the other GOP candidates facing serious challengers for their seats are avoiding Trump like the plague.) Ninety-two-year-old former presidential candidate Bob Dole made an appearance, but, well, it's Dole.
When Cruz took the stage, the overall goal of the party was to make the GOP look unified and worth supporting, mainly by going after presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. But for that to happen Cruz needed to be ready to give in, kiss the ring, and give Trump a resounding endorsement.
He paused for just a moment before mentioning Trump's name, a barely perceptible grimace flickering over his face. Cruz toed right to the edge of an endorsement, but he refused to take the plunge.
"We deserve leaders who stand for principle. Unite us all behind shared values. Cast aside anger for love. That is the standard we should expect, from everybody," Cruz told the audience. "And to those listening, please, don’t stay home in November. If you love our country, and love your children as much as I know you do, stand, and speak, and vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution."
That was about the time when the audience started going nuts, with some cheering while a whole bunch started booing. Despite the moving speech, despite his careful preparation, Cruz wasn't able to get away with coming to Trump-fest 2016, stealing the spotlight and giving exactly nothing in exchange for it.
As Cruz wrapped it up Trump appeared in the wings, his face erupting from lines of tension into a confident grin for the cameras.
Cruz ended his speech by coming back to his chosen themes of freedom and the future. "We must make the most of our moment – to fight for freedom, to protect our God-given rights, even of those with whom we don't agree, so that when we are old and gray, and our work is done, and we give those we love one final kiss goodbye, we will be able to say, 'Freedom matters, and I was part of something beautiful.'"
And with that, Cruz was done. He ignored pleas from the delegates to endorse, to say Trump's name, and left the stage.
Away from the cameras, the crowd got so riled up that security helped Cruz's wife Heidi get away from angry Trump supporters. From his perch, Trump smiled benignly and tried to look as if he didn't care Cruz refused to back him.
Of course, in the end this speech wasn't about Trump, and it was never going to be focused on the Donald. Cruz essentially kicked off Cruz 2020 Wednesday night.
Since nobody has a crystal ball, it's impossible to know how all this is going to play out. W. may have been right when he reportedly lamented on Wednesday that he thinks he might have been the last Republican president. On the other hand, Trump could win, and then we'll get to see what a Trump presidency looks like in real life. Anything could happen.
But there's one thing, we do know — Cruz has been aiming for the presidency since he vaulted to the Senate in a surprise victory in 2012, and one little orange man of a setback isn't going to stop him from trying for it again.
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