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Cruz enters fifth GOP debate in Trump's crosshairs

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Cruz enters fifth GOP debate in Trump's crosshairs

  •  U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (left) and fellow GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
    Gage Skidmore/Todd Wiseman via Texas Tribune U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (left) and fellow GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.

LAS VEGAS — Don't get Trumped.

That's the task facing Ted Cruz as he heads into the fifth Republican presidential debate in the crosshairs of the bomb-throwing billionaire.  

While Cruz has found himself under scrutiny from a proliferating number of rivals since the last debate, no brewing conflict could be more consequential Tuesday night than the one between the senator and The Donald. In recent days, Trump has turned on Cruz after a months-long truce of sorts, questioning whether he is beholden to the oil industry and has the right temperament to be president. 

Those who cross Trump have not fared well in the polls, a point the billionaire often makes with glee. Cruz is hoping not to face the same fate as his stock rises in Iowa, endangering Trump's months-long frontrunner status in the first-in-the-country caucus state. 

As Cruz takes the stage inside The Venetian Hotel and Casino — his lectern positioned beside Trump's for the first time all debate season — the senator is not expected to debut any new strategy for dealing with Trump. For months, Cruz has been by far friendlier with Trump than any other GOP hopefuls have been, cultivating an alliance that has largely shielded him from his opponent's wrath. It's been an effort to ensure he stays in the good graces of Trump fans should Trump leave the race.

Cruz's campaign says he will treat Trump like any other opponent Tuesday night. He'll be willing to address policy differences but unwilling to engage in personal attacks. 

"Cruz, as he has before, is ready to defend his record if anyone calls it into question,” said Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the campaign.

Cruz affirmed that approach Monday evening in his first media appearance since Trump began speaking ill of him. In an interview on Las Vegas radio, the senator declined to respond to Trump's suggestion that Cruz has acted "a little bit like a maniac" in the Senate. Cruz reiterated his belief that voters are not interested in a "food fight" between candidates. 

Trump appears more eager for a brawl, especially after audio surfaced last week that purportedly showed Cruz questioning Trump's "judgment" at a fundraiser. At a rally Friday in Iowa, Trump raised his first criticisms of Cruz, questioning how he could win the caucuses given his opposition to ethanol subsidies and casting doubt on his ability to connect with evangelicals due to his Cuban heritage. Trump upped the ante in TV interviews that aired Sunday, saying he does not think Cruz is qualified to be president due to his disruptive tenure in the Senate. 

Asked Sunday on Fox News if viewers can expect fireworks between Cruz and Trump at the debate, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski brought up Cruz's fundraiser remarks, saying they illustrate how Americans are "tired of politicians who say one thing behind a closed door and another thing out in front of the public." Moments later, Lewandowski offered an ominous warning: "If you attack Donald Trump, be prepared. Because he's going to hit back and he's going to hit back hard."

Lewandowski also previewed of a potential line of attack for Tuesday night, suggesting voters are still not fully aware of Cruz's support two years ago for dramatically increasing the number of visas for highly skilled workers. Cruz has since distanced himself from that proposal, saying the H-1B visa program should be put on hold until problems with it are fixed.

As Trump has escalated his rhetoric against Cruz, the senator has playfully sought to defuse tensions. The most recent example came Monday night while Trump was holding a pre-debate rally in Las Vegas. 

"Getting ready for the debate tomorrow. Needed some inspiration," Cruz tweeted, linking to a scene from the movie "Tommy Boy" in which the main character dances to the song "Maniac."

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