by Eleonore Sens / with Jerome Cartillier in Washington
Agence France Presse
HOUSTON, United States (AFP) — “Big Night in Texas!” Donald Trump promised in his Monday morning tweet.
Ted Cruz hopes it is as well.
The US leader arrived in the Lone Star State in the evening to give a shot in the arm to the Senate campaign of Cruz, his fiercest rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Wearing black cowboy boots, Cruz welcomed the president on the tarmac as he descended from Air Force One.
During the campaign, Trump infamously insulted the looks of Cruz’s wife Heidi, vaguely suggested Cruz’s father had played a role in John F. Kennedy’s assassination and tagged him with the nickname “Lyin’ Ted.”
The 47-year-old junior senator from Texas fired off insults of his own, calling Trump a “pathological liar” and “utterly amoral.”
Now, the pair will share a rally stage in Houston with two weeks to go before the congressional midterm elections in which Cruz is in an unexpectedly tough re-election battle.
“He’s not Lyin’ Ted anymore,'” Trump told reporters before leaving for Texas, bestowing Cruz with two new nicknames: “Beautiful Ted” and “Texas Ted.”
The campaign “became very nasty. And then it was over,” the president said. “And when it was over, we’ve gotten along great. No, I like Ted.”
Thousands of Trump supporters arrived hours in advance of the rally — swarming streets around Houston’s Toyota Center stadium in a festival-like atmosphere which was to include live music and food trucks.
Some had camped overnight, bundled up against the frigid temperatures, according to local media.
“We want to see Trump. We want to make sure we get in,” Trump supporter Maudie Borel told Houston TV station KTRK.
Trump needs Cruz to maintain Republican control of the US Senate, while Cruz is all too aware that a presidential seal of approval could help him in his face-off with rising Democrat star Beto O’Rourke.
The rally is timed with the beginning of early voting in the state. Local media reported unexpectedly heavy traffic at polling stations, where some also camped overnight in order to cast their ballots.
With national attention on Houston, O’Rourke campaigned in various spots around the city to boost supporters and encourage them to vote early.
“We are here for everyone,” O’Rourke told a crowd in Pasadena, a Houston suburb, “Republicans, Democrats, independents alike.”
Far from a cake-walk
Opinion polls still have the ultra-conservative Cruz in the driver’s seat, but he is far from the cake-walk win he and the party initially predicted.
“Beto,” as supporters of the 46-year-old O’Rourke call him, is making life difficult for Cruz.
While positioning himself firmly on the left, O’Rourke has eschewed the anti-Trump rhetoric systematically rolled out by most of his party — a move that has won over voters.
Some even say O’Rourke could be the party’s savior in the next presidential election in 2020.
Trump has called O’Rourke a “total lightweight” but the Democrat has opted not to trade insults with the president on Twitter.
“I don’t know that it makes any sense to respond,” O’Rourke told ABC News.
“The kind of bitterness and the name-calling and partisanship that has unfortunately defined so much of the national conversation, you can add more to it or you can stay focused on the future.”
Trump and Cruz: a study in insults
At the Toyota Center, which can hold up to 19,000 people, Trump will likely mock the young Democrat and sing the praises of Cruz, who is seeking a second term in the Senate.
Two years ago, however, the pair were hardly friends. Cruz was the last man standing against Trump in the primary, and the campaign got ugly.
Trump gave vague credence to a report from The National Enquirer tabloid that Cruz’s Cuban-born father Rafael had been friends with Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Cruz in turn accused the Manhattan real estate mogul of being the source of another Enquirer article that alleged the senator had been unfaithful to his wife.
After the primaries, Cruz took a long time to formally endorse Trump, even going so far as to accept a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in July 2016 — and withhold his support.
Instead, Cruz urged Republicans to “vote your conscience.” Only in September 2016 did Cruz eventually say in a Facebook post that he was voting for Trump.
As is often the case, Trump’s tweets on Cruz tell the story about the evolution of their relationship.
In February 2016, Trump said: “Why would the people of Texas support Ted Cruz when he has accomplished absolutely nothing for them. He is another all talk, no action pol!”
In August this year, Trump tweeted: “As you know, Ted has my complete and total Endorsement. His opponent is a disaster for Texas.”
© Agence France-Presse