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Bob Dole really, really doesn’t like Ted Cruz

Former senator Bob Dole (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports" Tuesday, the veteran anchor sat down with former Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole to talk, ostensibly, about the current state of his party and the rise of Donald Trump. But the Kansas Republican had something else on his mind. And that something else was how much he dislikes Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

In a question about what Dole makes of Trump, the former Senate leader quickly turned matters to Cruz. "He's not traditional Republican conservative," Dole said of the Texan. "Achievements are shutting down the government twice, and calling the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the Senate floor. It violates the rules of the Senate.  And he doesn't have a single Senate supporter."

Later, Mitchell probed as to whether Dole could or would vote for Trump next November. Dole said he would because he can't bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton. Then she asked about Cruz, and Dole joked, "I might oversleep that day," before adding: " 'Cause he used to make these speeches.  'Remember President Dole, do you remember President McCain.' The inference was that we were all a bunch of liberals, and only he is a true conservative.  And he uses the word 'conservative' more than he ever uses the word 'Republican.'  So, it would be difficult."

What Dole is referring to there is a piece of rhetoric Cruz used extensively in the long run-up to his 2016 presidential bid. "Of course, all of us remember President Dole and President McCain and President Romney," Cruz would say. "Now look, those are good men, they’re decent men. But when you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate.”

It clearly irked Dole.  When he endorsed Jeb Bush's presidential campaign last month, Dole went out of his way to take a shot at Cruz. "I think [Jeb's] the most qualified, and we need somebody with experience and there are a lot of good candidates — I like nearly all of them," Dole said. "Except Cruz.”

Dole's animosity toward Cruz tells you two things:

1) Politics is deeply personal and Dole doesn't like people — especially Republicans — poking fun at his 1996 loss at the hands of Bill Clinton.

2)  A MASSIVE amount has changed in the Republican party over the past 30 years. When Dole ruled the party, he was widely regarded as a conservative — albeit  one willing to cut deals when the moment required it. Now, he is cast as a Benedict Arnold of sorts by Cruz.  And whereas the blueprint for becoming the party's presidential nominee was once Dole (long, loyal service in the Senate), it may well now be Cruz (running against the Senate from the second he got there.)

While much of the focus at the moment is what it would mean for Trump to be the Republican nominee, the prospect of Cruz as the party's standard-bearer makes Republican establishment types in Washington far angrier.  In fact, some of the resistance in going after Trump aggressively is based on the idea that such a move might strengthen Cruz.  "There's no benefit at this point for the establishment to go after Trump because his votes aren't going to their person," said one high-ranking Republican operative granted anonymity to speak candidly. "They're afraid that will only help Cruz."

Cruz as the nominee would force lots and lots of sitting Republican senators  and House members to make a very hard choice: a) refuse to vote for or endorse him or b) grit their teeth and cast a ballot for Cruz. Most would likely choose "b." But maybe less than you think.