Ted Cruz Makes a Big Gamble With Convention Speech

Ted Cruz wanted to leave Republican delegates with a case of buyer's remorse.

The plan was carefully scripted: snub Donald Trump by not endorsing him at the Republican convention on Wednesday night. Unleash a stirring cry for conservative values that would evoke memories of Ronald Reagan's 1976 clarion call at Gerald Ford's coronation. That show-stealing speech set Reagan on a glide path to the 1980 nomination, which is what Cruz is hoping for in 2020.

But the plan went awry, and sparked an ugly clash at the GOP convention in Cleveland. As Cruz's speech dragged past the 20-minute mark with just a perfunctory mention of Trump's triumph, the crowd grew restive. "Say his name!" some Trump allies shouted. "Go home!" others yelled.

Then the host himself twisted the knife. As Cruz was wrapping up, Trump stepped on his peroration, walking into the arena to join family in his VIP box. The boos for the Texan rang long and loud. Two Trump sources told TIME the outburst was orchestrated by the campaign after they were tipped off that Cruz would withhold the endorsement.

Read More: Watch Ted Cruz Fail to Endorse Donald Trump at the Republican Convention

The speech was a gamble that could upend the 2016 runner-up's planning for 2020 and shape the contours of a coming party fight should Trump lose. Some RNC officials believe Cruz is actively laying the groundwork for a presidential run in four years regardless of what happens in November. That could set up a remarkable challenge to a sitting President from his own party.

For Cruz, the prime-time address was an all-in wager. Decline to endorse at Trump's coronation, and Cruz might alienate millions of Republicans at a moment when he is trying to recast himself as a team player. Embrace Trump, and risk tainting a personal brand built on conservative purity. Not to mention help a man who insulted his wife and father.

Most Republicans eyeing future runs for national office have embraced Trump. That's a product of calculation, not affection: many worry a failure to fall in line could backfire if the outspoken billionaire blames his defeat on their disloyalty. But Cruz has made the case for a year that the GOP loses when it nominates insufficiently conservative candidates. And he's betting a Trump loss would prove his point.

Before the speech, Cruz's most-passionate supporters were split on the best course of action. The move wasn't made lightly; much of the address was crafted by Cruz himself. In the end, it was a bet that kneecapping Trump would help push the party toward a conservative revolution, with the Texan at the head of the column.

Read More: Watch Republican Delegates Boo Ted Cruz

"I want to congratulate Donald Trump on winning the nomination last night," Cruz began. Of course, Trump had effectively clinched the nomination months earlier. And Cruz never mentioned the man at the top of the ticket again.

The dramatic set piece followed negotiations between the two campaigns and Republican officials, as well as a phone call between the candidates themselves. The speaking slot was one element of an agreement that prevented Cruz's name from being placed into nomination during the roll call of the states on Tuesday night.

But if Trump's team expected a graceful concession, the patina of deference was short-lived. In a convention conspicuously light on Trump accolades, the nonendorsement was the sharpest blow yet. It sent an unmistakable message that four months before the 2016 election, the battle for 2020 has already begun.

Republican National Convention, Cleveland, Ohio.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence stand with their families at the end of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.Christopher Morris—VII for TIME
Republican National Convention, Cleveland, Ohio.
Republican National Convention, Cleveland, Ohio.
Duck Dynasty reality TV star Phil Robertson on the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Thursday, July 21, 2016.
Scenes from the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Thursday, July 21, 2016.
Scenes from the floor at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Thursday, July 21, 2016.
Donald Trump kisses running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence at the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016, in Cleveland.
TIMEPOL RNC
TIMEPOL RNC
TIMEPOL RNC
Donald Trump with his children Eric and Ivanka Trump at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, on July 20, 2016.
A man poses at Instagram's "Mini Oval" office at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.
Donald Trump supporter Rachel Day, from Akron, stands outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.
TIMEPOL RNC
Mounted police from Fort Worth, Texas monitor the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 20, 2016.
Attendees hold signs at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attends the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
A man attends the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Attendees hold signs at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
A Texas delegate tallies up the votes for the Donald Trump's nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Donald Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Delegates cheer at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Comedian Eric Andre is escorted from the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Boxing promoter Don King attends the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Donald Trump Jr. speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Tiffany Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19, 2016.
A screen displays the state flag of Mississippi, the only state that includes the Confederate battle emblem in its official state flag, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
TIMEPOL RNC
Buttons are displayed for sale outside the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
A pair of men interact with protesters in the Cleveland Public Square at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Trevor Leis, of Lime, supports open carry at the Cleveland Public Square amidst various protests at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19, 2016.
A police officer stands on a protective crowd control line in the Cleveland Public Square at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19, 2016.
Delegates pose for a group photo at the Republican National Convention on Monday, July 18, 2016, in Cleveland.
A man dons a "Make America Great Again" hat at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Melania Trump kisses her husband, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, to the applause of the ecstatic crowd, on July 18, 2016.
Scenes from the floor of the 2016 Republican National Convention on Monday, July 18, 2016, in Cleveland.
Donald Trump appears on stage at the 2016 Republican National Convention on Monday, July 18, 2016, in Cleveland.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence stand with their fa
... VIEW MORE

Christopher Morris—VII for TIME
1 of 36

Weeks ago, in fact. It's easy to spot the signs across Cleveland: Senator Tom Cotton, the ambitious freshman from Arkansas, stopped in on a breakfast of New Hampshire delegates; Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who may be gearing up for another go, hobnobbed with early state activists. Walker must first win re-election, but "he'll be back" on the national stage, an aide told TIME this week.

Nobody has spent as much time charting his postelection path like Cruz. He dropped out after his defeat in Indiana on May 3, but it was a case of leaving one race to join another. He has continued to spend money. Allies hatched a plan over the next four years to smooth Cruz's reputation as a solitary climber by parceling out cash to select Republican allies.

Aides closely monitored the snuffed delegate revolts against Trump, ready to pounce if opportunity struck, yet careful to avoid any fingerprints. A brawl over the rules that will govern the next Republican nominating contest was driven by Cruz loyalists. The ham-handed effort, which could have excluded anyone who isn't a registered Republican from future primaries, was a change expected to benefit the Texas purist if it had passed.

Read More: How Mike Pence Tried to Heal the Republican Rift

Cruz's close-knit corps of political advisers has never left his side. Some key staff, including strategist David Polyansky and communications hand Catherine Frazier, migrated back to his Senate office. Others landed at a pair of new nonprofit groups that will tend his interests, keep talent in house and prepare for his 2018 Senate re-election. But that is not the ultimate goal.

A second run for the presidency is almost surely in Cruz's future. "He's 45 years old," campaign manager Jeff Roe told reporters on Wednesday. "He came in second." You can read between the lines.

The only question is when. "I expect Ted Cruz to run no matter what" in 2020, said Carroll Maxwell, a delegate from McKinney, Texas, who was waiting Wednesday afternoon to enter a crowded party Cruz threw at a bar to thank supporters. "That’s what I’d like to see.”

But among his most fervent fans, there was no consensus about how Cruz should handle his speech Wednesday night. Many said he should back an imperfect nominee for the sake of party unity; others were aghast at the idea. "He can't," Arizona delegate Gayla Coletto said of a Trump endorsement. "If he does that, he'll lose 90% of us."

Gesturing at the lengthy line on a hot afternoon, Jean Griswold, a delegate from Concord, N.C., and a member of Cruz's Tar Heel State steering committee, tried to explain the ardor fans feel for the Texas Senator. "The people you see here would walk over glass for him," she said. "As we look to 2020 or 2024, these people here will all be there for him."

The question after his risky bet on Wednesday night is whether that's still true.

— With reporting by Zeke J. Miller / Cleveland

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.