#NEVERTWEET: There is never a good time to suddenly ditch your communications director, but some times are perhaps a bit less ideal than other times. For instance: Midday Monday, which also happens to be the day before the Nevada caucuses.
Of course, this wasn't all about a retweet: Since Iowa, each of the race's remaining candidates has accused the Cruz campaign of dirty tricks -- pointing to everything from attack ads to tough mailers to having supporters who pass along dropout rumors. Most of those charges boil down to an accusation that Ted Cruz is running for president, and his campaign is doing things that presidential campaigns usually do. And all the charges, fair or not, are intended to knock Cruz off-message.
As late as last night, the Cruz team seemed to view the claims as a perception problem that deserved to be dismissed, not addressed. This afternoon, that changed.
Donald Trump -- who's been pushing the Cruz dishonesty meme harder than just about anyone -- took a tweetstorm victory lap.
Wow, Ted Cruz falsely suggested Marco Rubio mocked the Bible and was just forced to fire his Communications Director. More dirty tricks!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2016
The immediate problem for Cruz -- who called Tyler a "good man" who made a big mistake -- is the one that faces anyone who cuts a senior staffer loose. The hope is that it looks like a take-charge move, but odds are better that the first reactions be divided into roughly two camps: The critics who will try to paint it as bad leadership, and the critics who will try to paint it as weak leadership.
Via spokesman Alex Conant, Team Rubio stuck with the former line of attack: "Rick is a really good spokesman who had the unenviable task of working for a candidate willing to do or say anything to get elected. There is a culture in the Cruz campaign, from top to bottom, that no lie is too big and no trick too dirty..."
It's the message Rubio, Trump, Carson have been pushing for weeks -- that Ted Cruz is the "dishonest" candidate. Today was their chance to try to make it stick.
Of course, none of this addresses Ted Cruz's longer-term problem.
First two questions to Cruz at press conference:— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) February 22, 2016
1) Is Donald Trump unstoppable?
2) Is Donald Trump unbeatable?
And so the Cruz campaign -- looking to get back on track after the Tyler exit -- sent a memo to reporters late this afternoon redirecting attention to the intended Message of the Day: There's only one guy in the race who's actually beaten Donald Trump so far this year, and his plan is still on track. More or less.
The release included a concession it may have hurt to type -- "Evangelicals are clearly energized by both Cruz and Trump" -- along with delegate #Math: "By March 15, 26 states or territories will have voted, and Rubio does not plan to win any of them. Almost 50% of the delegates will have already been allocated; Rubio will win almost none, and then he’ll hope for resurrection in Florida. That’s an even less plausible path to victory than Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 'wait for Florida' strategy in 2008."
It's still the biggest question facing the Rubio campaign, even as he sounds more like a candidate pitching himself to a broader general election audience: besides Florida, where does he actually, you know... win? Even as he picked up fresh establishment support, with a score of new endorsements today in the wake of Bush's exit, there were rising concerns over the fact that the path to overtaking Trump now appears very, very narrow indeed: "The window is closing," says one GOP donor.
(By the way, there was news late last night that there actually is a candidate consulting with Rudy Giuliani this year: Donald Trump, who made a prediction today that strikes at the heart of Ted Cruz's carefully-crafted SEC strategy: In Atlanta, he said he was poised to sweep the South.)
CAMPAIGN #PROTIP: When delivering a stump speech, any line that includes both the word "women" and the word "kitchen" is unlikely to land well. Real-world example time: Let's say you are an Ohio governor who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, and you use a campaign appearance in Virginia Monday to credit the "many women who left their kitchens to go out and to go door-to-door and to put up yard signs for me." There may or may not be an explanation for the line that somehow involves women's workforce participation rates in 1978, but the Internet is unlikely to react well. (VIDEO)
The Kasich team's response: When he said they'd left the kitchen to volunteer, he didn't mean that they'd left the kitchen in order to volunteer, since they volunteered from the kitchen.
"John Kasich's campaigns have always been home-grown affairs. They've literally been run out of his friends' kitchens and many of his early campaign teams were made up of stay-at-home moms who believed deeply in the changes he wanted to bring to them and their families. That's real grassroots campaigning and he's proud of that authentic support. To try and twist his comments into anything else is just desperate politics."
Meanwhile, the Kasich super PAC New Day for America released a new ad, "Quiet." It features both a very intense-looking little boy on a bike -- and The Townhall Hug from last week. (VIDEO)
Today was the first day of the rest of the post-Nevada Bernie Sanders campaign: The Vermont senator held a press conference to announce that from here on, he'll be aggressively laying out out his policy differences with Hillary Clinton, reports John Wagner.
Speaking in Boston, the Vermont senator said to expect a weeks-long contrast campaign, including campaign finance and trade. (Sample attack line: “The people of Massachusetts and the people of the United States need to know that difference between hastily adopted campaign rhetoric and the real record and the long-held ideas of the candidates.”)
That's the long term. In the short term, he has a spring break problem: your strongest demographic is less likely to turn out on Election Day if they're out of town. Then again, even if they were around, they probably wouldn't have voted anyway, notes Philip Bump.
GRAMMATICAL FACT CHECK:
On Tuesday, it's the GOP's turn to hold Nevada caucuses. If more rural voters than usual show up, it might be good news for Ted Cruz. Depending on the success of his campaign outreach, more Mormon voters than usual might be good for Marco Rubio. But right now, most of the field is encountering "the long shadow of Donald Trump" (VIDEO), who heads into the day favored.
After Nevada, things get tricky for anyone trying to keep track of where the race is headed: We're about to enter possibly the most decisive three-week stretch of the campaign -- with scant recent state level polling (in some states, this holds true even if you consider "recent" to be anytime in the past two years.) One key race we may get a good read on tomorrow morning: Texas, where Ted Cruz needs to stockpile as many delegates as he can humanly accumulate to stay competitive with Trump -- the Texas Tribune will post a new poll at 6 a.m. ET.
Speaking of Nevada:
Why it's an issue: The Cruz campaign is running an ad in which he promises to hand control of federally managed land -- which, in Nevada, is 85 percent of the state -- back to "citizens." (Which, in Nevada, means ranchers.)
TRAIL MIX: Thing we learned today, thanks to the Nevada campaign: Marco Rubio is against prostitution, but thinks states can make it legal if they want to, even though he'd really prefer it if they didn't.
--Here's Bernie Sanders on why he thinks Pope Francis is a socialist.
-- Last week, we noted what looked like a Trump team trial balloon on a Rubio birther meme. Sure enough: it's here.
-- It may have taken a billionaire running for president to reveal that money doesn't matter as much as most people thought it did.
-- After learning who was behind a major donation to an anti-Trump super PAC (Marlene Ricketts, matriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs) Trump warned the family that they "better be careful."
-- Speaking of Trump targets: Callum Borchers reports on reaction to the tweet this weekend by NBC's Katy Tur that described insults and obscene gestures directed at reporters at a Trump rally after the mogul bashed them from the stage. (For the record, Tur followed up the tweet by describing the incident as "Just another Sunday" covering Trump. She's right.)
-- Campaigns are hard. So one enterprising Ohio teen decided to skip the process entirely, and start pretending he was already a state senator: "They could easily have Googled me."
YOUR DAILY TRAIL PIT STOP comes from beyond the trail today: 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin visits the White House. There is dancing, by a woman who appears to have a lot more energy than most of your Washington Post political team right now. (VIDEO)