MILWAUKEE — Search the transcript of Tuesday night's Republican presidential debate and you'll be hard-pressed to find Ted Cruz uttering a single unkind word about his "good friend" and primary opponent Marco Rubio.
But read between the lines, and you'll find that Cruz foreshadowed some of the attacks his campaign plans to unleash against Rubio this winter.
Without calling out his Senate colleague by name, Cruz twice took subtle digs at Rubio during the Fox Business Network debate. At one point, he warned against Republicans who would turn the GOP into "the party of amnesty" — without specifically mentioning that Rubio had championed a bill that would have provided undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
At another point, while railing against "corporate welfare," Cruz singled out subsidies for the sugar industry — a policy Rubio has consistently, and controversially, supported despite objections by free-market critics.
"Sugar farmers farm under roughly 0.2% of the farmland in America, and yet they give 40% of the lobbying money," Cruz said in the debate. "That sort of corporate welfare is why we're bankrupting our kids, and grandkids."
Rubio, whose home state of Florida contains hundreds of thousands of acres of sugarcane fields, remained silent.
The two candidates are slowly but steadily rising in the 2016 polls, and in recent weeks it has become fashionable for pundits to predict that the nominating contest will ultimately come down Rubio as the establishment standard-bearer and Cruz as the right-wing crusader.
Though Rubio's team remains fixated on keeping expectations low and retaining their underdog status ("We're not the frontrunner," Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan repeatedly insisted to a scrum of reporters Tuesday), Cruz's aides are less coy.
"What did we learn tonight? The two frontrunners on substance weren't as strong as some of the other people below them," said Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler in the post-debate spin room. He argued that Donald Trump and Ben Carson — who are currently in a dead heat for first place — were exposed for their lack of policy know-how when they receded into the background of Tuesday's wonkish debate, and he implied that ultimately they would fade in the polls.
Who might replace them? "Cruz turned in a very solid, substantive debate," said Tyler. "You could argue that Rubio did as well. So then [the question] is, What is the substance of those two policies?"
Tyler said Cruz has focused so far this year on introducing himself to voters and articulating his positions on issues. "But now we've been through four debates and so we're moving into a new phase ... 'Hey, I'm for this and they're for that.' In the end, all campaigns are about contrast. So you draw the contrast and let people decide."
In politico-speak, "contrast" is generally used as a nice-sounding word to justify deploying negative ads and attack lines against an opponent — and Tyler made clear he wasn't working from a different definition.
"Our record on amnesty is clear and consistent and [Rubio's] is not as clear and consistent," Tyler said. "He was for the Gang of Eight bill, then he said he wasn't. Then he said he was for a step-by-step approach." He continued to list the litany of alleged flip-flops before concluding of Rubio, "He essentially has the same position as the president."
Tyler stressed that the Cruz campaign would keep their "contrasts" strictly focused on policy issues, not mudslinging.
But when BuzzFeed News asked him what he thought of this week's New York Times report that a pro-Jeb Bush super PAC was threatening to unload $20 million of attack ads on Rubio designed to "damage [his] reputation," Tyler grinned.
"I don't think it's enough," he said. "It should be 40 or 60 [million]. I would double or triple it instantly. Why be cheap?"
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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