Ted Cruz is not running a dirty campaign, despite what Donald Trump and Marco Rubio would argue. But that idea just cost Cruz's spokesman, Rick Tyler, his job.
His campaign's clumsy effort to translate Ben Carson's post-Iowa travel into a Carson concession was unfair, but it likely didn't make much difference and can probably be chalked up to zealousness as much as anything. That "you haven't voted" flyer in Iowa was poorly received, but it was based in sound political research -- and was only sent to a few thousand people who probably wouldn't have voted anyway.
Cruz's ads against Trump, quoting Trump's past positions as stated by Trump himself, are fair game, despite Trump's threats to sue. There were late robocalls in South Carolina hammering Donald Trump for being liberal, but those were from a PAC, not the campaign itself. Reports of "push polls" and other gauzy nonsense appear to be unfounded.
But that we have to list all of these things proves the point: Cruz has a perception problem, for two reasons.
First, his opponents are more than willing to make a big deal out of these not-very-big issues because it serves their own political goals to do so. Trump plays them up because he wants people to think that maybe he won Iowa, which he didn't. Carson plays them up because he wants people to think that he's actually a good candidate, which he isn't.
It is, in my estimation, as dirty to berate Cruz for playing dirty as was anything that Cruz actually did.
Why? That brings us to the second point: The repetition of the accusation that he's playing dirty by his opponents and their supporters and some in the media puts his campaign under much greater scrutiny than his opponents. Cruz is now seen as a dirty campaigner, so he has to meet a higher bar than Trump or Carson. Marco Rubio sent an email to voters in South Carolina telling them to look out for dirty tricks from Cruz -- a way of getting them to consider anything from Cruz skeptically. This is how politics works; campaigns try to frame one another as low-energy or a "chaos candidate" or whatever, and sometimes it sticks (as in the first example there). But this is what Cruz has been saddled with.
Over the weekend, that Cruz spokesman, Rick Tyler, posted a link on Facebook to a blog post showing a video of Rubio. In it, according to the captions in the original video (below), Rubio walks up to a Cruz staffer who is reading the Bible and says there are "not many answers" in the book.
Which wouldn't really make any sense for Rubio to say, for a number of reasons, including that he's a devout Catholic.
Tyler offered an apology to Rubio in a new Facebook post Sunday.
Too late for Tyler. Speaking to the press Monday afternoon, Cruz said that he'd asked for his staffer's resignation -- which may have been requested all of this other stuff notwithstanding. Tyler, who at that moment was supposed to appear on MSNBC, didn't.
Tyler was also integral to the campaign's defense of the "Carson is dropping out" push. Two strikes, and he was out. This is about all Cruz can do in the moment to rebut the "dirty politics" argument.
But it won't be enough.
Trump's already issued one of his signature Twitterstorms on the subject:
"Ted Cruz has now apologized to Marco Rubio and Ben Carson for fraud and dirty tricks. No wonder he has lost Evangelical support!
"Ted Cruz should be disqualified from his fraudulent win in Iowa. Weak RNC and Republican leadership probably won't let this happen! Sad.
"And so on. Rubio's camp kept the heat on Cruz, too."
Trump's line about evangelicals, which Trump also used on Sunday, shows how it works. Paint a portrait of Cruz as unethical and use it to tell voters explicitly why they shouldn't back him. Why did Cruz underperform with evangelicals in South Carolina? We don't know, but Trump is happy to offer his own analysis.
Again, Tyler's exit won't solve Cruz's perception problem. It's now baked-in. All he can do is ensure that his relationship with his core base of support holds up -- and that nothing else offering even a whiff of untowardness happens. With opponents willing to transform Kansas into Everest, though, that's going to be nearly impossible.
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• 01/18/16: The dark undercurrent for Hillary Clinton in Sunday's Dem debate
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