In Supreme Court vacancy, Cruz senses an opening

A conservative titan. A judicial morass. A Senate showdown with President Barack Obama.

From the moment Justice Antonin Scalia’s death was announced on Saturday, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and his team sensed an opportunity — an occasion to reframe the race on terrain that seems particularly favorable to Cruz.

It is easy to see why.

In the throes of a circus-like campaign season, Cruz warned sternly on Monday that “two branches of government are at stake” in the presidential election, predicting a future with meager gun rights and “unlimited abortion on demand” if conservatives cannot select the next Supreme Court justice.

He described his work as solicitor general before the nation’s highest court and offered a detailed primer on a “radical pro-abortion extremist” judge who happens to be Donald J. Trump’s sister.

And before a crowd of several hundred here, he tossed off anecdotes about Scalia, noting in passing that he had known the man for 20 years.

“He was a voluble Italian,” Cruz said at a rally here, drawing warm chuckles.

Creature of the court

Cruz has long cast himself as a creature of the court: He clerked for the former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and argued nine Supreme Court cases as the solicitor general of Texas. Even before Scalia’s death, a standard Cruz stump speech often included a lengthy section on the significance of the court and its appointees to the president.

Yet the instant tussle in Washington over a Scalia successor has also highlighted a more recent feature of Cruz’s biography: stopping Obama from pursuing his plans at virtually any cost.

Although Cruz has angered some Republican colleagues for his efforts, particularly during a government shutdown in 2013 over the Affordable Care Act, party leaders have in recent days made clear their intentions to prevent Obama from installing a new justice.

Seizing the moment

In a Fox News interview on Monday morning, Cruz was quick to take his share of the credit. “I was very pleased to see Republican leadership following what I called for,” Cruz said.

Perhaps more important, Cruz has seized on the moment to broadcast Trump’s long history of left-leaning positions, questioning his willingness to appoint conservatives at public appearances on Monday and in a new campaign ad titled “Supreme Trust.”

Trump's sister is appellate judge

Cruz reminded reporters that last year Trump floated his sister Maryanne Trump Barry, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, as a possible Supreme Court pick. Trump has since said he was only kidding.

“Now, it’s good to stand with your sister,” Cruz said. “But Donald’s sister was a Bill Clinton-appointed federal appellate judge who is a radical pro-abortion extremist.”

In fact, Barry was initially appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan; Clinton promoted her. Cruz seemed to be referring to a 2000 decision in which Barry called a New Jersey law banning late-term abortions “unconstitutionally and incurably vague.”

The gloves come off

As Trump raged against his rival on Monday for an assortment of slights — he called Cruz “a totally unstable individual” and “the single biggest liar I’ve ever come across” — Cruz reveled in the taunts.

He called Saturday’s debate, which included a long discussion of Scalia and a dust-up over the legacy of George W. Bush, a “turning point in the campaign” and speculated about Trump’s standing in polls.

“What we are seeing happening is Donald’s numbers are plummeting after the debate,” Cruz said on Fox News, though public surveys have not yet suggested this.

Asked if Cruz was referring to his campaign’s internal polls, a spokesman, Rick Tyler, declined to elaborate. At an event later on Monday in Camden, South Carolina, Cruz surmised that his opponent was acting “rattled” because Trump’s own internal poll numbers “must be plummeting.”

Trump still leading in S.C.

While that remains to be seen, and most pre-debate surveys placed Trump comfortably ahead in South Carolina, veteran operatives in the state said that Cruz stands to benefit from a heightened focus on the court.

“We don’t like lawyers until we need one,” said David Woodard, a longtime Republican consultant in the state and a professor of political science at Clemson University. “His argument is, he can speak knowledgeably about the court in a way nobody else can.”

Tyler, the campaign spokesman, argued that Scalia’s death had produced “a sobering effect on the race,” before taking aim at Trump’s unpredictability and Sen. Marco Rubio’s past support for a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants.

“If they want a conservative justice, they would pick Ted Cruz,” Tyler said of voters. “If they want to spin the roulette wheel, they would pick Donald Trump. If they want to pick someone who’s pro-amnesty, they’d pick Marco Rubio.”

Rubio not getting away that easy

Despite Rubio’s poor New Hampshire showing and middling position in South Carolina polls, Cruz continues to view him as a threat. In recent days, Cruz has packaged his attacks efficiently, lumping Trump and Rubio into the same insult.

“When it comes to foreign policy, both Donald Trump and Marco Rubio have agreed with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton far too often,” he said at one point Monday.

“Whenever anyone points out their record, they simply start screaming, ‘Liar, liar, liar,” he said at another.

Cruz also debuted a new line of attack against Rubio, condemning his 2013 support for the confirmation of John Kerry as secretary of state.

Cruz was one of three “nay” votes.