Trump and Cruz make the best of their forced embrace

HOUSTON — In a move that would have seemed unthinkable two years ago, President Donald Trump offered a full embrace, literally and figuratively, of Ted Cruz in a massive rally here Monday night, imploring a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters to turn out for his former political rival in Texas’s closely watched Senate race.

In what is likely to be one of the most closely analyzed endorsements of this hotly contested midterm election, Trump and Cruz shared the stage at the top of an hour-long rally here, sharing a brief man-hug and a few arm squeezes before an estimated crowd of 18,000 in the heart of downtown Houston. It was the most public sign yet that Trump and Cruz, whose bitter battle for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination was one of the ugliest campaigns in recent memory, have put the past behind them—for now, anyway.

“We had our little difficulties …It got nasty,” Trump admitted, as he took the stage here. But he hailed Cruz as someone “who has become a really good friend of mine.” “Nobody has helped me more,” he added, citing Cruz’s work to pass tax cuts and in the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Trump’s trip came as Cruz has faced a stronger-than-expected challenge from Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a rising star Democrat whose unlikely candidacy has drawn massive crowds and national attention. A recent CNN poll found Cruz leading O’Rourke, a three-term congressman from El Paso, by 7 points, a relatively small margin in a state where no Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.

Trump formally endorsed Cruz months ago, but leading Texas Republicans have been appealing to the president to turn out for his former rival for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. The two fought a bitter campaign marked by extremely personal attacks, including Trump’s suggestion that Cruz’s father, Rafael, had a connection to the assassination of President Kennedy.

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Ted Cruz and Donald Trumps love/hate relationship

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz challenges rival Donald Trump (L) about releasing his tax returns during the debate sponsored by CNN for the 2016 Republican U.S. presidential candidates in Houston, Texas, February 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Stone

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks with supporters of fellow candidate Donald Trump during a campaign event at The Mill in Marion, Indiana, U.S., May 2, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump shows off the size of his hands as rivals Marco Rubio (L), Ted Cruz (2nd R) and John Kasich (R) look on at the start of the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Donald Trump (L) and Ted Cruz shake hands at the start of the Republican candidates debate sponsored by CNN at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida, March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) (R) greets businessman Donald Trump onstage as they address a Tea Party rally against the Iran nuclear deal at the U.S. Capitol in Washington September 9, 2015. Both Cruz and Trump are U.S. Republican presidential candidates. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A delegate holds a sign that call for Ted Cruz delegates to support Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump (L) talks with rival candidate Ted Cruz during a commercial break in the midst of the Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate sponsored by CNN at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Jim Stryker, of San Francisco, holds a sign in protest of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz during the California GOP convention in Burlingame, California, U.S., April 30, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz gestures over at rival candidate Donald Trump (L) at the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Donald Trump (L) and Ted Cruz (R) speak at the debate sponsored by CNN for the 2016 Republican U.S. presidential candidates in Houston, Texas, February 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Stone

A supporter holds up a sign with an error as U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks at a campaign event in Syracuse, New York April 15, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Former Republican U.S. presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz speaks during the third session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 20, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Protesters stand outside the Town & Country Resort where Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz is speaking at a rally in San Diego, California, United States, April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Heidi Cruz, wife of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz, bites her lip and closes her eyes as she listens to her husband drop out of the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during his Indiana primary night rally in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S., May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Bergin

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While Cruz has remade himself into a close ally of the president, Monday marked the first time the two have shared a campaign stage in more than two years. The event drew extensive media attention. A couple of hundred journalists were credentialed for the rally, and as the moment came for Cruz and Trump to share the stage, they crowded near a press riser, squeezing in to observe the hotly anticipated moment of political rapprochement.

Cruz took the stage ahead of Trump, delivering a shorter version of his usual stump speech. But he also added new lines, pledging his political loyalty to Trump—vowing that he will campaign alongside the president as he seeks re-election in 2020. The vow was a sharp contrast to Cruz’s infamous 2016 Republican National Convention speech where he refused to formally endorse Trump.

“I’m going to make a prediction to every person here: In 2020, Donald Trump will be overwhelmingly re-elected as president of the United States,” Cruz declared. “I am honored that President Trump is here endorsing and supporting my campaign and I look forward to campaigning alongside him in 2020.”

This time, Cruz was there for Trump—and Trump, in turn, was there for him. As the president finally sauntered to the stage, slowly walking out to his usual soundtrack of “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood, the Texas senator patiently waited near the lectern, clapping and smiling.

Trump, in return, bashed O’Rourke—trashing him as a “radical” and a “socialist” and referring to him by his given name: “Robert Francis O’Rourke.” He said O’Rourke was a “stone cold phony” who would replace Texas values with “Nancy Pelosi values.”

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Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke debate

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DALLAS, TX – SEPTEMBER 21: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) shakes hands with Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) prior to the start of a debate at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU on September 21, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)

DALLAS, TX – SEPTEMBER 21: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) makes a statement during a debate with Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU on September 21, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)

DALLAS, TX – SEPTEMBER 21: Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke in their first debate for Texas U.S. Senate in McFarlin Auditorium at SMU on September 21, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Nathan Hunsinger-Pool/Getty Images)

DALLAS, TX – SEPTEMBER 21: Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) makes a point as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) waits his turn during a debate at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU on September 21, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)

Michelle Smith and Kelly Canon take a selfie with others prior to the start of a debate between Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU in Dallas, Texas, U.S., September 21, 2018. Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/Pool via REUTERS NO RESALES. MANDATORY CREDIT.

DALLAS, TX – SEPTEMBER 21: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) makes his final remarks as Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) listens during a debate at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU on September 21, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) makes a point during a debate with Sen. Ted Cruz (not shown) at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU in Dallas, Texas, U.S., September 21, 2018. Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/Pool via REUTERS NO RESALES. MANDATORY CREDIT.

People cheer as Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) debate at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU in Dallas, Texas, U.S., September 21, 2018. Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/Pool via REUTERS NO RESALES. MANDATORY CREDIT.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) makes a point as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) waits his turn during a debate for Texas U.S. Senate seat at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, U.S., September 21, 2018. Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/Pool via REUTERS NO RESALES. MANDATORY CREDIT.

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But for all the attention given to Trump’s appearance for Cruz, the president’s appearance here was a standard-issue Make America Great Again rally. The crowd was a sea of red and white MAGA hats. They waved the pre-printed signs that are handed out at most Trump rallies, not Cruz signs.

There was the familiar chant from the crowd of “Lock her up” at the mention of Hillary Clinton. Trump pointedly reminded the media that he didn’t start the chant, although he didn’t disavow it, either.

The president proudly laid claim to a description that some of his critics have used against him: “nationalist.”

“You know, they have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.”

Before Cruz and Trump took the stage, Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, appeared on stage with campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson to urge the crowd to sign up for text messages to help Trump win re-election.

But Sen. John Cornyn, Cruz’s colleague, made the link between Cruz’s fate and Trump’s fortunes in 2020 explicit—suggesting if Cruz falls, the president and other Republicans up for re-election in two years are at risk, too. “Texas is the firewall in this midterm election,” he said.

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