Ted Cruz was trying to play nice in Waukesha, Wis. Wearing Texas boots, blue jeans and his Princeton class ring, he rolled through a campaign speech perfected long ago, a precise list of one-liners delivered in a growling, apocalyptic style. Think Moses on high, tablets firmly in hand.
After each complete thought–abolish the IRS, stop amnesty, beat back federal regulators “who have descended like locusts”–he paused, chuckled and nodded his head, as if suddenly impressed. This tactic to elicit applause infuriates his rival Donald Trump, the Queens-born brawler, whose own rambling run-ons and fragments are more suited for the barstool than the pew. “Five-second intermission between sentences,” Trump complains of the Cruz rhetorical style. But for the former college debater who argued nine cases before the Supreme Court, the spaces between words work like a metronome, building suspense, adding somber layers of gravitas.
So it was something to see when the most hated Senator in Washington began to sound like the Great Unifier for the Grand Old Party before an American flag the size of a prairie barn and an entranced crowd. This was a Senator who had campaigned for months as the anti-Establishment, anti-Washington rebel, deriding his own party’s leadership as a criminal cartel of bloodsuckers. This was a Republican who had been called a “jackass” by his own former House Speaker and a “wacko bird” by John McCain. For months on the trail, Cruz would joke that he might need food tasters to eat in the U.S. Senate dining room. And now he was suggesting the long war would come to an end, with himself as the cohering force.
“Let me say, what you are seeing here in Wisconsin, and across the country, is the 65 to 70% of Republicans who recognize that nominating Donald Trump would be a disaster,” he said, before a nod, chortle and pause for applause. “Of the 17 Republican candidates who started, five have now endorsed this campaign.” Another pause. “You are looking at the entire spectrum of the Republican Party. The entire ideological spectrum, coming together and uniting.”
This is what it looks like when Rafael Edward Cruz tries to pitch a bigger tent. Blink and you might miss it. His national political career is no older than Barack Obama’s second term, and up to now, the Cruz brand has never wavered. He stands for ideological purity. Obstruction over compromise. Confrontation despite the odds. He has built an appeal that is narrow by design, “in bold colors, not pale pastels,” leaving few elected politicians in America who can claim a position to his right. Until now, he has not worried much about conversion.
Which is why Republicans now face an extraordinary and painful choice: Which flawed, disliked flag bearer do they want to go into battle against Hillary Clinton? The Cruz path promises a return to the purity of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan’s broad-shouldered muscle and the idealism of Ayn Rand. The Trump path leads to uncharted territory of conflict and possible realignment, where a self-described great man promises to do great things beyond the reach of ideology or history because of a great instinct honed by great real estate moxie. The two men have stood 11 times on the same debate stage, but they don’t speak anything like the same language. The choices are as stark as any in history at this point in the process: Free-market purism or disruptive trade wars. Dismantle the federal entitlement system or strengthen the Social Security safety net. Return to American dominance on the world stage or threaten withdrawal from South Korea and NATO. End federal funding for Planned Parenthood or defend the women’s health group. Then there is Trump’s plan to force the relocation of 11 million people.
And if these options were not jarring enough, it is not even clear that Republican voters will decide, in the end, who is preferable. American democracy is not always democratic, especially when it comes to intraparty disputes–the majority does not rule, and the people may not decide. And the complex rules of the Republican Party suggest that the choice of the ultimate nominee hinges on a process far more mysterious than who gets more people to the polls on primary day.
After his loss in Wisconsin, Trump’s only certain path to the nomination is to win 60% of the remaining pledged delegates, an unlikely feat. But Cruz would need to win an even less likely 92%. If neither reaches the 1,237 delegates needed on the first ballot in Cleveland, the process will be thrown open to the crowd, whose names are still largely unknown and motivations subject to dispute. If both Cruz and Trump struggle to get majority support after several ballots, there is even a slim chance that a third person, such as current House Speaker Paul Ryan or also-ran Governor John Kasich of Ohio, could wind up the nominee.
As a result, the unity that Cruz now peddles remains more of a wish than a thing. Many people who openly dislike Cruz have simply chosen him as their vehicle to stop Trump on the convention floor in Cleveland–for now. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the five candidates to endorse Cruz, says he is “holding my nose” for no other reason than utility. “As many differences as I have with Ted Cruz, which are real, they pale in comparison with the differences I have with Donald Trump,” Graham told TIME. The Club for Growth spent $1 million on a television ad in Wisconsin that told moderate voters, “Stop Trump, vote for Cruz.” Never mind Cruz himself.
In Washington, among the so-called cartel of power brokers and party bosses, Cruz has, for the moment, become the best foil to maintain some control over the party, an irony not lost on either his supporters or detractors. Republican insiders have started to compare Cruz to a parking lot, the safest place to keep your car idling for now. “Are you really for Cruz or are you trying to run up Cruz’s delegates so that Trump doesn’t win on the first ballot?” asks Richard Hohlt, a veteran GOP consultant. “That appears to be what’s going on.”
Cruz, in other words, still has his work cut out for him before he can unify his parking lot. There will be more lurches and jolts before anyone accepts the nomination in Cleveland. “There is an ancient Chinese curse,” Cruz told his supporters in Waukesha. “May you live in interesting times.”
The following evening, after changing from his Texas jeans into his election-night suit and powder blue tie, Cruz sat down with TIME for an interview. Sitting on the hotel sofa, the candidate was at ease, relishing what by then was a clear victory. He had coalesced a broad swath of GOP voters for the first time, winning nonevangelicals and evangelicals, young and old, of all ideological bents. “This race is very simple,” he said. “If we unite, we win. If we do not, we lose.”
Good politicians know how to recast their message for the moment. The great ones seem to do it without contradiction, alienation or any actual change in position. This is the leap that Cruz is now attempting. He won the Iowa caucuses with devotion and red meat. His rallies began like prayer circles and continued into fury. He would describe the hatred for him from his own party as “the whole point of the campaign.” He promised not just to repeal Obamacare but to rescind “every word” on Day One. More than unwind the Iran nuclear deal, he vowed to rip it “to shreds.” He would not just destroy Islamic extremism, he would find out if “sand can glow in the dark.”
Those bold positions all remain, but their packaging has been muted. The clenched fists are now open arms. “From the beginning, our objective was to reunite the old Reagan coalition to bring together Republicans and independents and libertarians and Reagan Democrats,” he said. “I believe the path to winning the Republican nomination and winning the general election is standing up for hardworking men and women of America who have been left behind by Washington.” The conservative caterpillar is becoming a general-election butterfly.
This same pivot animates his campaign. After Wisconsin, Cruz planned to work hard to move beyond the white, evangelical, mostly male voters who have always been his core supporters. In his campaign speeches, he has begun to address “single moms” and “working moms” directly, with a message of economic populism to match the appeal of Trump and the Democrats. The day after Wisconsin, he traveled to a meeting with black and Latino pastors in the Bronx, spoke halting Spanish with reporters afterward and repeatedly referred to “our community” when talking about Latinos.
Then there are the gauzy new references in his public remarks. The speech he had prepared for the network cameras the night he won Wisconsin included a quote from former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill about ending the quarrel between past and present to focus instead on the future. He would even quote Democratic President John F. Kennedy, who Cruz has long argued, improbably, would be a conservative Republican if he were alive today. “We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future,” Cruz said, repeating Kennedy’s words.
But it is another President who he said gave him hope his gambit could succeed. “Throughout the course of this campaign, as others have gotten nasty and gotten personal, have engaged in a war of insults and petty personal attacks, I haven’t responded in kind,” Cruz explained, referencing, among other things, Trump’s recent attack on the appearance of his wife Heidi. “That is very much the model of Ronald Reagan, even when Reagan primaried Gerald Ford in ’76.”
Many of Cruz’s Senate colleagues, who wear the scars of Cruz’s own tactics, would take issue with his new unilateral disarmament campaign. If anything has defined Cruz’s rise as a freshman Senator, it has been a willingness to publicly and privately sacrifice members of his own party when it served his interests.
Even his closest friend, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, suffered a Cruz ambush in October at an otherwise unremarkable hearing on a Lee bill to reduce sentences for nonviolent federal offenders. Cruz shocked all present by announcing his opposition in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, suggesting the bill would unleash violent “illegal aliens” on the streets and weaken Second Amendment protections. The bill died on its way to the Senate floor, and Lee eventually endorsed Cruz anyway.
This has been a pattern. In his brief Senate career, Cruz seemed to go out of his way to make enemies, fundraising for groups that oppose incumbent Republicans, leading a hopeless charge in 2013 to shut down the government in the name of repealing Obamacare and objecting to procedural moves that would have prevented Republicans from taking difficult votes to raise the debt ceiling. In 2015, he took to the Senate floor to call Republican leader Mitch McConnell a liar. (In reply, McConnell sent word to the GOP lobbying class that they supported Cruz at their peril.) Cruz’s home-state colleague, Texas Senator John Cornyn, has pointedly refused to offer an endorsement, even after Cruz won 44% of the state’s primary vote, nearly 17 points more than the second-place Trump. At the same time, in a sign of the conflict, Cruz has warned his colleagues that “voters are upset” and that if the Establishment is seen “undercutting their will, that could be a powder keg.”
Cruz has begun the process of trying to charm his detractors. He has urged Lee and former Senator Phil Gramm to try to heal old wounds with some in the Senate, though not yet McConnell. Cruz himself has been holding lengthy private sessions with Republican leaders, according to one Cruz insider with knowledge of the meetings. But under Republican rules, it is not elected officials or even powerful Senators who pick the nominee at a contested convention. That decision will be left to 2,472 delegates, mostly state and local party boosters and officials, chosen through local processes so complex, they make tax law seem fun. Most of those delegates will be bound only on the first ballot to vote for a candidate chosen by their state’s GOP voters.
The prospect of four days of televised political chaos has led GOP chairman Reince Priebus to move in recent days to take back his party. Republican governors in 31 states have been challenged by party leaders to try to get control of these delegations now and seed them with seasoned loyalists. Local party bigwigs and lobbying groups are leaning on the GOP governors to put some muscle into the effort.
Perhaps sensing a counter-revolt, Trump has hired Paul Manafort, a floor manager for Gerald Ford at the last contested convention in 1976, to help ensure that Trump people are appointed to Trump delegate spots as well as to the party’s rules, platform and credentialing committees. The fight will be long, ugly and expensive. It costs a lot of money to attend a convention, and state parties sometimes dun delegates for extra cash to help pay for rooms, travel, parties, hospitality suites, political swag and transportation. Under Federal Election Commission rules, delegates can accept sums of money to attend the convention without disclosure, a loophole that might lend party leaders an assist with maintaining party discipline. “You can pay delegates off,” explains Rick Tyler, Cruz’s former spokesman. “I think it’s unethical, but it’s not illegal.”
Meanwhile, there is little mystery about who has the best operation for wrangling, recruiting and securing delegates. From Tennessee to Colorado, Cruz’s delegate-hunting operation has dominated, with his aides confident that around 200 Trump delegates will swing to Cruz after the first ballot. In Virginia, where Cruz finished a distant third, the campaign is hustling to install supporters in the state’s 13 at-large delegate slots. In Louisiana, Cruz is set to pick up as many as 10 more delegates than Trump, despite losing the Bayou State primary by four points. In a show of organizational muscle, 18 of 25 delegates elected at the North Dakota state convention backed Cruz. In Georgia, where Cruz finished a distant third, his allies have dominated preference polls of the party activists showing up at precinct and county meetings. “We’re going to make sure we get dealt four aces,” says a member of Cruz’s delegate operation. “You don’t just want Cruz supporters. You want fighters. At the national convention, there will be more browbeating and arm twisting than you can imagine.”
Consider what has been happening in Arizona: Trump romped to victory in the state on March 22, crushing Cruz with 47% of the vote. The win netted Trump all 58 of the state’s delegates–but only for the first ballot. Cruz’s operatives in the state have been working for weeks to secure activists who are inclined to support the Texas Senator once they’re no longer bound to Trump. The result is an intimate lobbying campaign, carried out through phone calls and texts, emails and in-person contacts at party gatherings and Tea Party functions, gun shows and forums held by taxpayer groups.
“You’re not trying to move thousands of people,” says Constantin Querard, Cruz’s Arizona state director. “These meetings usually have 30 to 200 people. It’s feasible to contact everyone.” Cruz boosters estimate that anywhere from half to 90% of the Arizona delegates will switch to Cruz after the first ballot.
Cruz has made the shadow campaign a personal priority. While Trump planned his next megarally, Cruz left the campaign trail three days before the critical Wisconsin primary to speak to the North Dakota state convention in Fargo. Cruz also found time to campaign in Wyoming, with only 29 delegates. “It’s good old-fashioned grassroots politics,” says Quin Hillyer, a conservative columnist who is part of a group that has met to discuss how to stop Trump. “Cruz and his team are showing that they’re masters at it.”
At least so far. The result in Wisconsin, where Cruz trounced Trump 48% to 35%, by no means ends the suspense. The coming terrain in the Republican battle will be far friendlier to Trump than the landscape of the past two weeks, and Trump has signaled a retooling of his operation to get back on track. The real estate developer still polls above 50% in his home state of New York, which votes April 19, and has been endorsed by Governor Chris Christie in nearby New Jersey, which votes on June 7, where the popular-vote winner will take home all the delegates.
The most likely outcome at this point is that Trump will approach, but not meet, the required threshold of 1,237 delegates, opening up a spectacle unlike anything since the unscripted Florida recount of 2000. Former Trump adviser Roger Stone, a unrepentant practitioner of the political dark arts and former business partner of Manafort’s, has promised to organize “days of rage” outside the hotels of the delegates, with thousands of Trump voters protesting any effort to hand the nomination to anyone but the candidate who got the most votes. Stone predicts that Cruz has made a deal with the devil by making common cause with Establishment leaders who are not truly on his side. “They will drop him like a hot potato,” Stone said. “This man has no friends.”
Back in Milwaukee, with exit polls already predicting his big night, Cruz showed no concern at the prospect of battles in the streets of Cleveland. “There’s no doubt Donald Trump has energized and excited a great many people,” Cruz said, before ticking off issues that Trump has focused on–immigration, trade, low wages. “Those issues will continue to resonate. And they are issues on which I am fighting and leading every day.”
The notion that Trump’s primary appeal is through a set of issues is a quaint one, which few Republican strategists would share. But then Cruz, the college debater, has always tried to frame his moves in the most advantageous ways. And that style has taken him further and faster than his colleagues ever expected.
–With reporting by ZEKE J. MILLER/MILWAUKEE; ALEX ALTMAN, PHILIP ELLIOTT and JAY NEWTON-SMALL/WASHINGTON
This appears in the April 18, 2016 issue of TIME.