(Bloomberg) — For Ted Cruz, the single biggest obstacle to winning the Republican nomination may not be outsider candidates Donald Trump or Ben Carson, but his fellow first-term senator, Marco Rubio.
After strong debate performances, both Cruz and Rubio—two 44-year-old Cuban Americans—saw their poll numbers rise, and interest from donors jump. The two Republican presidential hopefuls are now locked in a third-place tie according to a national Los Angeles Times poll ahead of Tuesday’s debate in Milwaukee. As a result Cruz and his allies have begun zeroing in on Rubio.
“As I look at the race, historically, there have been two major lanes in the Republican primary. There’s been a moderate lane and a conservative lane,” Cruz told CNN on Thursday. “Marco is certainly formidable in that lane. I think the Jeb [Bush] campaign seems to view Marco as his biggest threat in the moderate lane.”
The Texas hardliner’s mischievous branding of Rubio as a “moderate” is the first shot in a showdown that may unfold in the coming days of the campaign.
The label “moderate” may seem anodyne, but in the context of modern Republican primaries it is generally meant as an insult. Just 24 percent of Republicans self-identify as “moderate” while 70 percent self-identify as “conservative,” according to Gallup. In the era of President Barack Obama, compromising with Democrats is toxic among GOP voters, who prefer that their leaders stand up for conservative principles and have instilled fear by purging long-serving Republicans with moderate views such as Sen. Bob Bennett and Sen. Richard Lugar.
“Every day, more and more conservatives are uniting behind our campaign,” Cruz said. “And once it gets down to a head-to-head contest between a conservative and a moderate, I think the conservative wins.”
In a head-to-head match-up, Cruz and Rubio are statistically tied, according to YouGov—38 percent of Republicans favor Rubio; 34 percent prefer Cruz; the difference is inside the November poll’s margin of error.
Given Rubio’s background and voting record in the U.S. Senate, some Republicans are having trouble with Cruz’s description of him as a “moderate.”
“Of course he isn’t,” said Katie Packer Gage, deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney in 2012. “Cruz is being purposely misleading. It’s dishonest.”