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INDIANAPOLIS — Moments before Ted Cruz publicly ended a campaign for president that had lasted more than a year, he stood backstage and thanked his closest friends, supporters and advisers for their help and support.
Some sat at round tables. Conservative commentator and TV host Glenn Beck stood and watched. A bar table covered with Starbucks cups and an ironing board with an upright iron stood off to the side.
When Cruz finished speaking, the group of about 50 people applauded — several of them wiping away tears — and Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe, walked away from them, looking down, and shook his head.
Cruz’s speech to a group of a few hundred devoted followers from the main stage minutes later was met with disbelief and anguish.
“From the beginning, I’ve said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory,” Cruz said. Murmurs rose in the audience.
“I’m sorry to say,” Cruz said — and cries of “No, no!” rang out — “it appears that path has been foreclosed.” This brought an even louder “NO!”
As Cruz announced that he was suspending his campaign “with a heavy heart,” a girl of about 12 began to sob. Her father stood nearby with his hand over his mouth and said, “What are you doing?”
Cruz sought to reassure his followers inside the Grand Hall Ballroom of the Crowne Plaza hotel. “Hear me now: I am not suspending our fight for liberty,” he said. His father and mother, divorced 20 years ago but standing next to one another on this night, stood behind him.
A gaggle of Cruz’s campaign staff stood 20 feet from the stage, many of them red-eyed. After Cruz finished his speech, he began to greet supporters in the front of the crowd, but then abruptly returned backstage after just a few moments, apparently too emotional to continue.
Sen. Ted Cruz gets a hug from a supporter after dropping out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. (Photo: Chris Bergin/Reuters)
His supporters were left to pick up the pieces and to ponder their choices now that businessman and reality TV personality Donald Trump stands alone as the likely Republican nominee and the only alternative to Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I might vote for Hillary,” said Jason Winters, 40, a machinist from Crawfordsville, Ind. “She’s a criminal. She’s a murderer. But she’s better than an authoritarian dictator.”
Several Cruz supporters said they would vote in the fall for down-ballot candidates in races for the House and U.S. Senate, but would not vote for a candidate for president if their only choices were Trump or Clinton.
“I will write in Ted Cruz’s name,” said Linda Bond, a 54-year-old campaign volunteer from Kansas City.
Damon Hood, a 24-year-old construction worker, said he would never vote for Trump or Clinton but hoped there would be a third-party option. “I will not stay home,” he said.
But national conservative leaders and activists who have held private meetings over the past month to determine if a third-party candidacy is viable know that their window of opportunity is effectively closed. In Texas, a third-party candidate would have to submit roughly 80,000 signatures of Texas voters who had not voted in either primary by next Monday. And that is not going to happen.
Erick Erickson, a conservative radio talk show host and publisher who has been one of Trump’s most vocal critics, said Tuesday that there is growing resignation among some members of the group who have been meeting to discuss a third-party bid.
Erickson said that when the group convenes a conference call Wednesday, “my guess is the consensus is going to be, we can’t mobilize a third party to do much good.”
“A lot of people are thinking, let’s let this shake out and let there be a reckoning,” Erickson said.
But another person involved in the third-party talks was adamant that such work will continue to move forward.
Ted Cruz hugs his father, Rafael, and wife, Heidi, after announcing the suspension of his campaign. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
“Conservatives against Trump will remain conservatives against Trump even if he gets the nomination,” the Trump opponent said. “We will be looking for every alternative to Donald Trump.”
The anti-Trump group is looking at how to provide a reason for NeverTrump voters to come out to the polls, to keep their votes for House and Senate candidates from going uncast. This could be a national write-in campaign, or a state-by-state patchwork effort.
But even an anti-Trump super-PAC, Our Principles PAC, signaled that if Trump is the nominee, they will not continue to oppose him. “We will continue to educate voters about Trump until he, or another candidate, wins the support of a majority of delegates to the convention,” said Katie Packer, the group’s chair.
And many influential Republican operatives behind the scenes gave up the cause of stopping Trump days ago, resigning themselves to his nomination.
“He appears to me to be an amoral, arrogant, divisive man. However, I think he has tapped into the desperate frustration of many Americans and just maybe could grow as a candidate and politician.” one Republican insider said.
In Cruz’s concession speech, he positioned himself for a future presidential run by referring to Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1976 after narrowly losing a contested convention to incumbent President Gerald Ford.
Cruz cast himself as a Reaganesque figure who he said looked past “the close horizons” that preoccupied those thinking only of “their own fortunes” and peered far ahead into the future, concerned for coming generations of Americans.
It was, for Cruz, a first attempt to portray himself as a magnanimous leader, rather than the voraciously ambitious and self-promoting politician he is considered to be by many other Republicans, especially in the Senate.
When Cruz launched his candidacy in late March 2015 at Liberty University in Virginia, he was overlooked and underestimated by most political observers. He ended up running the most savvy, proficient campaign of any Republican presidential candidate, but in the end he was swamped by the Trump phenomenon.
But the mention of Reagan and 1976 also raised questions about why Cruz will not continue his candidacy on to the GOP convention this year in Cleveland.
One adviser noted that dropping out was an attempt to be a team player for the Republican Party. However, a Cruz endorsement of Trump seems unlikely. The Cruz adviser, asked about the chances of such an endorsement, just rolled his eyes.
In the closing days before this primary vote, Cruz spoke in increasingly bitter terms about Trump.
He implied that Trump is “evil,” said that “we are staring at the abyss” and “it is only Indiana that can pull us back.” Cruz also called Trump a “serial philanderer,” a “pathological liar” and “amoral,” and said that voters should choose him over Trump because “we are not a petty, bigoted, angry people.”
Cruz still has 546 delegates bound to him on the first ballot at the Republican convention in Cleveland this July. He could use them to negotiate for input on the party platform, as many past presidential candidates in competitive primaries have done.
But his campaign is just now beginning to reckon with what to do next. Former Virginia Gov. Ken Cuccinelli, tasked with overseeing Cruz’s delegate operation, didn’t have an answer for what will happen to those 546 delegates.
“We’re not ready to talk about that,” Cuccinelli said. And he disappeared behind a black curtain to the backstage room littered with discarded coffee cups and shattered dreams.