Ted Cruz earning grudging media respect, but is it too late?

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

Ted Cruz is suddenly having a moment. The question is whether that moment comes too late for him to beat Donald Trump.

Cruz never managed to capitalize on winning the Iowa caucuses, which led to a streak in which Trump captured 20 states and a seemingly insurmountable lead in delegates. But now that every other candidate other than John Kasich has bit the dust, the Texas senator has emerged as the anti-Trump alternative—even among those who don’t much like him.

And that has produced more positive coverage—or at least more respectful coverage—from a press corps that Cruz once told me is overwhelmingly comprised of partisan Democrats. And Cruz now says the media want Trump to win because, in their ideological fervor, they think he’d be the weakest candidate against Hillary Clinton.

Whether that’s a fantasy or not, the Cruz team believes that the senator’s specifics on policy are finally helping him against what they view as Trump’s reality-show candidacy. They believe his superior ground game will help them in future contests (though most of the caucus states have already voted). And raising $72 million so far hasn’t hurt.

The strategists recognize that the “Washington cartel” that Cruz has been running against is embracing him with hold-your-nose enthusiasm. And they are acutely aware that Cruz is highly unlikely to reach the magic number of 1,237, since he’d have to win 80 percent of the remaining delegates.

But one adviser said Cruz does best against Trump in closed primary states—those that exclude Democrats and independents—and that the convention is “like a closed primary on steroids.”

The pundits are taking note as the remnants of the GOP establishment, along with the conservative media establishment, reluctantly coalesce around Cruz.

Thus we have the strange specter of Jeb Bush, whose moderate record in Florida resembles that of Kasich, endorsing Cruz. The same goes for Mitt Romney, who governed Massachusetts in Kasich-like fashion (remember Romneycare?) but is now with Cruz. Carly Fiorina is also on board. As is Lindsey Graham, who once said no one would be convicted for killing Cruz on the Senate floor.

In the media world, the anti-Trump National Review, and conservative radio host Mark Levin, are backing Cruz.

The latest Fox News poll has Trump leading Cruz by just 41 to 38 percent (with Kasich trailing at 17). That’s substantial progress for Cruz, with one giant caveat: National polls don’t mean that much in a state-by-state battle for delegates.

But an Emerson poll has Cruz leading Trump 36 to 35 percent, a statistical tie, in Wisconsin, the next big state on the calendar. And Scott Walker, another presidential dropout, has made it pretty clear that he plans to endorse Cruz.

Another Cruz talking point is that he leads Hillary by 3 points in that Fox poll, while Trump trails by 11 points. (Kasich, who has brushed aside Cruz’s calls to quit, actually has the strongest showing, beating Clinton by 11.) But these early hypothetical matchups mean little before the campaign is actually waged.

Cruz is making a major issue of the dustup with Trump over their wives. (The Donald threatened to “spill the beans” on Heidi Cruz in reaction to that nude GQ photo of Melania Trump posted by an anti-Trump PAC that has no connection to the Cruz campaign.) He looked into the camera yesterday and angrily declared, “Donald, you’re a sniveling coward,” insisting that he “leave my wife alone.”

That issue has already gotten its 15 minutes of fame, and what matters is putting points on the board. The senator’s momentum could dissipate if Trump clobbers him in such upcoming states as New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, not to mention the June 7 contests in California and New Jersey. If Trump goes to Cleveland with anything close to 1,237 delegates, it will be hard to deny him.

Cruz, at his core, is a hard-edged conservative, while Trump has a more mixed ideology that he brands common-sense conservatism. The irony is that Cruz is now getting some late-inning help from people who never imagined being in his camp—or that Trump would be closing in on their nomination.