Sorry, man, I’m not taking your chump bait. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

Ted Cruz is refusing to take Donald Trump’s bait — or, if you prefer, Trump’s chump bait.

As the Post first reported, Trump is now raising questions about whether Ted Cruz’s Canadian birth casts doubt on the legitimacy of Cruz’s presidential candidacy. The sight of Trump’s birtherist tendencies now being turned against one of the leading candidates for the GOP presidential nomination is amusing enough on its own. But this situation has become even more interesting, now that Cruz has responded by refusing to hit back.

Asked to comment on Trump’s latest, here’s what Cruz said on the trail late yesterday:

“As others have thrown rocks and others have tossed insults, I haven’t reciprocated….And I don’t intend to start now….The best way to respond to this kind of attack is to laugh it off and move on.”

Cruz has studiously refused to return fire in Trump’s direction on a number of other occasions. Why? What’s the idea here?

I spoke this morning to a senior adviser to Cruz, Rick Tyler, who explained some of the thinking. It’s rooted in a recognition of just how much Trump’s candidacy has changed the normal political rules and in an appreciation of the unique nature of Trump’s appeal — two things that some of the other GOP candidates have perhaps failed to appreciate to the degree the Cruz camp has.

The Cruz campaign has long operated from the assumption that Cruz would be well positioned to inherit Trump’s supporters, should The Donald fade. That’s widely known, and widely thought to be one key reason Cruz won’t directly hit back at Trump. But there is more to it than that.

“We recognized that Trump changed all the rules,” Tyler tells me. “Attacking back clearly doesn’t work with him. He’s a celebrity. It’s like attacking your favorite morning host. It would be like going out and attacking your favorite pop star. Fans would hate that.”

The idea, then, is that there is little percentage in engaging Trump directly, precisely because of the unconventional nature of his appeal. After all, some of the other GOP candidates have tried this, only to disappear from the race rather quickly. The long-term calculation is two-fold: if it is correct that Trump’s support is rooted more in celebrity than in anything else, attacking him is futile and his support may prove fleeting on its own, meaning there’s little need to make a bid for it by going after him personally and directly.

This theoretically may leave his supporters likely to gravitate to the candidate who has not alienated Trump’s supporters by attacking him and is most like Trump on the attributes that matter to them, such as a willingness to draw a hard line on immigration and to battle the Washington establishment. (A new NBC/Survey Monkey poll suggests it may be true that Cruz is best positioned to scoop in Trump supporters: A plurality of Trump backers, 39 percent, name Cruz as their second choice, far more than any other candidate.)

And so, one big unknown here is whether it is a correct reading of this political moment to locate Trump’s support in his celebrity and to extrapolate from that the notion that it may prove fleeting on its own. As Tyler puts it: “The question is, are fans supporters? I don’t know.”

We’ll begin to find out in a few weeks. Right now, Cruz’s bet is looking smarter than that of his other non-Trump GOP rivals.

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* CRUZ ON TRACK TO WIN IOWA, REPUBLICANS SAY: The New York Times reports that Iowa Republicans, and privately even some of Cruz’s presidential rivals, now think it may be hard to stop Cruz from winning the Iowa caucuses. And:

With a dominant performance here, an unexpectedly strong showing in New Hampshire eight days later and victories in South Carolina and many of the Super Tuesday states on March 1, he could also quickly become something else: the de facto party nominee.

If Cruz does win Iowa, do well in New Hampshire, and then win South Carolina, the gnashing of teeth among Republicans will grow very loud.

* ADMINISTRATION UNDER FIRE OVER DEPORTATION RAIDS: Politico’s Seung Min Kim has a good overview of the increasing tensions between the Obama administration and immigration advocates who are furious over its stepped-up deportation raids. Note:

The raids are also putting Democrats in a political squeeze between advocates and their liberal base, which abhors the raids and an administration that is defending them….advocates said there will likely be increasing pressure on Democratic lawmakers to rebuke the Obama administration over the raids.

Hillary Clinton has handled this cautiously, expressing little more than “concern” over the raids, but that position may not remain tenable for much longer.

* HILLARY HAS THE SOUTH LOCKED UP: The Post’s James Hohmann has a useful look at how Hillary Clinton is laying the groundwork to prevail over Bernie Sanders in a number of southern states, should Bernie Sanders win one or both of Iowa and New Hampshire. The short version is that Clinton has locked up the backing of virtually all the southern Democratic establishment — including key African American officials.

To be sure, if Sanders wins both early contests, that could dramatically shift things in his favor elsewhere. But if he only wins New Hampshire, she will likely be able to prevail by racking up wins in the later contests.

* RECORD AUTO SALES LAST YEAR: U.S. drivers bought more cars last year than ever, despite the auto industry being in deep trouble only five years ago:

About 17.5 million cars and trucks were sold last year, automakers said Tuesday, overtaking the 17.3 million sales in 2000 and far outpacing the 10.4 million sales in 2009, when taxpayers paid billions to bail out the bedrock of America’s automotive might….the record-setting year has…given fuel to the Obama administration’s argument that the auto bailout helped carmakers survive.

I’m so old I can remember when the last GOP presidential nominee attacked Obama’s auto-bailout while simultaneously trying to take credit for the industry’s recovery.

* CONGRESS SET TO VOTE ON WAR? MAYBE: The Hill reports:

House Republicans will start listening sessions Thursday to discuss a measure authorizing the use of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, The Hill has learned…The sessions will be among Republican members of the [House Foreign Affairs Committee} for now. They are intended to gauge what Republicans would like to see in a new AUMF, and not to produce a concrete proposal.

The reason Congress has not voted on the war is that Republicans want open ended warmaking authority for the president (or the next president, anyway), while Democrats want a limited mission. But the fact that these divisions are difficult is no excuse not to vote.

* AND THE ‘NEW’ GOP AGENDA INCLUDES…REPEALING OBAMACARE: Today the House, under the new leadership of Paul Ryan, is expected to pass an Obamacare repeal bill, and CNN’s Deirdre Walsh observes:

With the presidential campaign kicking into high gear, Ryan has said his 2016 plan is largely about drawing a contrast with Democrats and delivering a blueprint for the eventual Republican nominee to pick up and use as a platform once the party coalesces around a candidate later this year.

So in this “contrast,” Democrats stand for keeping and improving Obamacare, while Ryan’s new GOP “blueprint” would repeal it and replace it with nothing…er, sorry, with that alternative that Ryan promises to roll out one of these days.