CLEVELAND (AP) — To chants of “2020, 2020,” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz on Wednesday left open the possibility of a second White House run even as Donald Trump arrived in Cleveland to accept the GOP presidential nomination.
“I don’t know what the future is going to hold. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Cruz told his rowdy supporters, many of them cheering another bid. “But what I do know what remains unshakable is my faith in the men and women here.”
The freshman lawmaker with Texas-size political ambitions has stopped short of a full-throated endorsement of Trump, his bitter primary rival who often mocked him as “Lyin’ Ted.” Cruz was slated to deliver a prime-time convention speech, but no endorsement was expected.
At a rally with some 900 delegates, donors, GOP officials and supporters at a lakeside restaurant, Cruz never mentioned Trump’s name during an appearance billed as a “thank you” event for supporters.
“Our party now has a nominee,” Cruz said Wednesday, just as Trump’s plane flew overhead. The senator laughed and said wryly: “That was pretty well-orchestrated.”
With an eye toward 2020, Cruz’s team drafted a convention speech focusing on adherence to the Constitution, a calling card for conservatives and a perceived contrast with Trump.
Far from a Trump endorsement, Cruz said he and his followers had the duty “to follow our conscience.” And he defined party unity on his terms: “To unite behind liberty and for us to empower the grassroots.”
If their reaction to Trump’s jet landing is any indication, unity will be a difficult task. The crowd booed loudly as the aircraft emblazoned with “TRUMP,” descended over the Cleveland skyline.
Many of Cruz’s supporters from around the country came to thank him, shake his hand and pose for photographs. They crowded around him 10 people deep in the sun of an outdoor restaurant deck after his 20-minute speech.
Donna Metz, Cruz’s 2016 Kansas state co-chairwoman, wore a sparkling red, white and blue hat and was jostled in the crowd as she made her way toward Cruz. “Oh, my gosh, I hope he runs again,” said Metz, of Eudora, Kansas. “He’s by far the best candidate.”
Texas fundraiser Mica Mosbacher said Wednesday that Cruz has taken a “quantum leap” with his convention speech after a rough primary, but based on conversations with his advisers the senator and his team are not ready to fully back Trump.
“I think they’re about 80 percent there,” said Mosbacher, who expects Cruz to make overtures toward unity in his remarks.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s top campaign adviser, said Wednesday that it will be clear from Cruz’s speech that he’s supporting Trump, though “how he says it, I don’t know.”
In a brief interview with The Associated Press, Manafort dismissed the importance of Cruz using the word endorse.
“No, it doesn’t at all. The point is the same. … If he’s voting, that’s the signal,” he said.
Before Trump even accepts the nomination, Cruz’s supporters as well as critics were saying undercurrents in Cleveland are emboldening the senator’s band of believers and stoking his 2020 prospects, should Trump lose in November.
Cruz is eager to be seen as the face of the modern conservative movement should there be an open GOP field in four years.
So what Cruz says later Wednesday during his prime-time convention speech will be closely watched for clues about his presidential aspirations.
“I’m hopeful it’s a speech that rings so true and so motivating that we think of 1976 and Ronald Reagan,” said Iowa Rep. Steve King, a Cruz supporter. King was referring to Reagan’s words after losing the nomination to Gerald Ford only to win the presidency four years later.
Should Trump lose, King said of Cruz, the speech will be “the marker for him as front-runner” for 2020.
Cruz halted his campaign two months ago, having outlasted all but Trump in a field that once numbered 17 candidates. He finished a distant second in the delegate accumulation during the Republican nominating campaign.
Cruz plans to address the Texas delegation Thursday.