01:41 - Source: CNN
Did Ted Cruz wait too long to oppose Donald Trump?

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Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was prepared to drop out of the Republican presidential race had he lost his home state on Super Tuesday, he confirmed Wednesday

Cruz went into the year anticipating a strong showing in the Southern states on Super Tuesday, but only came away with wins in Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska, and trails Donald Trump by more than 100 delegates

Washington CNN  — 

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was prepared to drop out of the Republican presidential race had he lost his home state on Super Tuesday, he confirmed Wednesday, and is asking Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to do the same should he lose his.

The comments come after Cruz fell well short of expectations he set for himself on Super Tuesday. But Rubio, his chief rival in the anti-Donald Trump contest, is not faring much better. Now, heading into a critical two-week stretch before the primary in Rubio’s home state, Cruz is aiming to change the narrative, working to sell his own donors and backers on his own viability, which is more in question than ever before given Trump’s command of the race.

“Listen, everyone recognizes Donald Trump is a unique phenomenon. And we were encouraged by internal numbers, but you know, I asked the team what do we do if we lose Texas?” Cruz told reporters in Overland Park, Kansas, on Wednesday night. “And we had reached the conclusion, if we had lost Texas, that would’ve been the end of the road.”

CNN first reported Wednesday afternoon that in a detailed 30-minute call with several dozen donors, Cruz’s chief strategist, Jason Johnson, said that Cruz himself was comfortable stepping aside if he had lost Texas. Cruz won the state handily, although some polls showed a tighter race heading into Election Day. Cruz went into the year anticipating a strong showing in the Southern states on Super Tuesday, but only came away with wins in Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska, and trails Trump by more than 100 delegates.

“Last night, when we were going through the different scenarios on what might occur, the senator asked what if we lose Texas,” Johnson said. “And I said that’s simple: You don’t have to do it on the stage, but you clearly stand there and remind people that ‘tonight is not a reflection of the ideas, the issues, the vision, etc. But clearly we now have to pull back and pray and think about who we throw our support behind in order to reignite the promise of America – because clearly it ain’t me.’”

Johnson said his boss was receptive to that.

“Well there was zero pushback from Ted Cruz,” Johnson told the fundraisers. “You might say it’s a duh. But it’s not a duh.”

“You get into this campaign. And it’s so hard to let go,” he said, but telling the donors they are clear-eyed about the path ahead. “This is not a campaign that will resist letting go if the path is not there.”

CNN listened to the call after obtaining information about it from a participant.

The discussion of Cruz leaving the race comes as Republicans continue to fight over who is best poised to take on Trump. Cruz and Rubio have both outlined paths to victory to their supporters, as has Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Cruz’s campaign is deliberating on what it can do to ensure that Rubio does not win his own home state. And his super PAC, Keep the Promise, is also preparing to spend money against Rubio in Florida, all part of an effort to consolidate the anti-Trump vote and send Rubio packing.

“Tomorrow morning, we have a choice. If the field remains divided, Donald Trump will be the nominee,” Cruz told supporters in Texas on Tuesday evening. “For the candidates who have not yet won a state, who have not racked up significant delegates, I ask you to prayerfully consider coming together, uniting.”

‘Olive branch’ to Republicans in debate

Trump leads the delegate count with 315, according to a CNN estimate. Cruz is in second, with 205, and Rubio has 106.

By winning Texas, Alaska and Oklahoma, Cruz didn’t walk away from Super Tuesday empty-handed. But it wasn’t the night he envisioned. Trump dominated all over the map and Rubio’s late-night win in Minnesota robbed Cruz’s campaign of a key talking point about his viability.

As he did across the South, Trump romped Cruz among evangelicals, winning over enough Cruz voters to push victory out of reach. Cruz’s much-vaunted organization wilted in the face of raw political momentum, as a tidal wave of economic resentment and anger overpowered the Texan’s carefully made plans.

Now, Cruz plans to offer an “olive branch” in Thursday night’s Republican debate to voters currently not supporting him, Johnson told donors, part of what he pitched as an aggressive, intentional effort to make Cruz more attractive to voters who are unfriendly to the Texas firebrand’s style.

“If I’m a voter siting out there,” Johnson said, “and Ted Cruz isn’t my first choice but Donald Trump is my last choice – and I believe Ted Cruz is the best way to beat Donald Trump – it needs to be easy for that person to come to the Ted Cruz campaign.”

Johnson told donors the campaign believes Cruz has a significantly more viable path to the GOP nomination than did Marco Rubio, who Johnson portrayed as a major stumbling block to beating Trump in a one-on-one race. But he also expressed severe skepticism that the anti-Trump forces would consolidate quickly, saying that Rubio is very unlikely to be convinced that his path is improbable, potentially leading Trump to the GOP nomination.

Cruz has fought criticism over his strategy from some of his own allies about his reluctance to take on Trump earlier in the campaign, when he mostly trained his fire on Rubio.

“I needed to build my base of support. I needed to take care so that I was on a strong foundation first before I could take him on,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash on Tuesday evening, pushing back on the idea that Cruz missed his chance to define Trump. “Not remotely. This is an ongoing conversation.”

The campaign is eager for Rubio to lose Florida on March 15. But it is also bullish on Cruz’s chances in Kansas, Louisiana, Idaho, Michigan, and surprisingly, in Johnson’s eyes, Maine. Two states where Johnson was skeptical of Cruz’s chances: Mississippi, which he called a “big question mark” and labeled it more “populist than conservative,” and Hawaii. It is unclear how sincerely they will compete in Kentucky’s caucuses.

Cruz performed well on Tuesday in closed primaries, where Cruz notched wins in Oklahoma and Alaska, and Johnson said those would be a priority moving forward.

And Florida is particularly enticing to the Cruz campaign given the ability to deal a knockout punch to the chief rival preventing the GOP nomination fight from becoming a genuine two-man race with Trump.

Johnson cast significant doubt on the path forward for Rubio, who is increasingly staking his campaign’s viability on a win in Florida later this month, characterizing Rubio’s path as “Doug Flutie with the hangover with the Hail Mary pass on Saturday morning of going to the 15th.” And he called Rubio’s recent penchant for insults with Trump a significant black mark on Rubio’s presidential aspirations – as much as the Cruz team enjoyed them.

“As entertaining as it was during the last debate – and frankly as therapeutic it was for people, myself included – to watch Marco engage in his old locker room glory days of trading insults and following up the next week talking about the size of Donald Trump’s hands – it’s not going to get the job done,” Johnson said. “What’s going to get the job done is contrasting in a presidential way with Donald Trump.”

Late Tuesday, though, there was some building discontent among Cruz donors with how things had gone the night prior. Some pointed fingers at his lack of contrast with Trump’s economic pitch that is so resonant with primary voters. Other were angry with Cruz’s Houston brass for not spending more time and money in his home state of Texas, where Cruz failed to clear the 50% threshold needed to capture all the delegates up for grabs.

“It’s of grave concern amongst the donors,” said one Cruz insider on Tuesday evening. “There should’ve been zero resources expended in these liberal states like Massachusetts and Virginia. Zero. Zero dollars.”

Trump’s momentum > Cruz’s organization

But the emphasis on courting Christian conservatives in the south has yet to pan out.

“When you lose, you don’t adapt the same playbook and say, we’ve just got to play harder, boys,” said the Cruz insider, who feels that the campaign’s emphasis on consolidating evangelicals is misguided. “You don’t do that. You find a new strategy.”

Republicans in the lead-up to primaries like Georgia’s gushed about Cruz’s organization, with several supporters saying they believed he had the best in the state. One Republican activist, Nathaniel Darnell, reminded a reporter that he had recently won a smattering of state straw polls, and he recalled the “several rousing speeches” Cruz gave to a state GOP convention last May.

“He’s had strong roots here from the beginning,” Darnell said Saturday, just outside the state capitol after hearing Cruz speak in Atlanta. “Obviously, Trump is probably going to snatch some of the folks who are less engaged.”

The problem for Darnell – and for Cruz – was that straw polls and rousing speeches could not out-punch Trump in Georgia or elsewhere. There weren’t “some” less-engaged folks who Trump could win. There were tons.

In Iowa, Cruz made a bet on tradition, investing in retail stops and a ground game – and it paid off. But ever since, momentum in the national race has mostly dictated results.

Even in the final moments of Cruz’s campaign here, some supporters of his shared a sense of resignation that Trump’s momentum, which Cruz himself labeled “enormous,” was too much for them to beat back.

“I’m not real confident that he’s going to have a good chance because of the momentum Trump has,” John Raymond said before Cruz spoke at the fairgrounds here, as his 20-month-old daughter clawed at his legs.

Raymond and his wife, Jackie, described Tuesday’s primary in cataclysmic stakes: If Cruz lost to Trump, America is doomed. And yet they struggled to make sense of why so many of their friends and family in the South had gravitated toward this New Yorker without clear ties to the Christian movement. Perhaps they are merely “starstruck” and “angry,” Jackie Raymond said.

“Most decisions that you make in life based on anger, you usually regret,” her husband added.

After Cruz finished giving Macon one of his most impassioned exhortations yet to stop Trump – “this is my country, damn it!” – another couple, Robert and Piper Mohl, were no more convinced that Trump’s force was stoppable.

Robert, a 50-year-old airport director, and Piper, a 54-year-old nurse, were despondent. Piper had volunteered with her daughter at Fayette County phone banks, responded to Cruz campaign emails and joined conference calls, and loved the toolkit that the campaign equipped each volunteer with in the run-up to Super Tuesday.

Her husband, less partial to Cruz, encouraged her to just believe the polls that showed Trump would likely win across the South. “You got to listen to what everyone else is saying,” he told her.

She wasn’t interested.

“I don’t want to let myself believe that my candidate doesn’t have a chance,” she said.

Why exactly did she think her own and her daughter’s work for the campaign would be enough to keep Trump at bay?

“I pray a lot.”

CNN’s Sunlen Serfaty contributed reporting.