At the CNBC Republican debate, Ted Cruz really took it to his opponents—the terrible liberal media. “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media,” Cruz said in response to a perfectly reasonable response to a question about his opposition to a debt limit deal. The moderators, he said, had tried to create a “cage match” between the candidates, while Democratic candidates were asked questions like, “Which of you is more handsome and why?”

As mean as he was to the media, Cruz was nice to his opponents. It's all part of his sinister plot: The Texas senator hopes to steal the votes of his fellow Republicans by being nice to them—and their fans—while they self-destruct. We know this because he straight-up told Politico. Earlier this week, Cruz explained that all along, he’s divided the Republican electorate into four lanes: an establishment lane, a Tea Party lane, an evangelical lane, and a libertarian lane. “The players that were expected to be formidable in those lanes have not got the traction they had hoped,” Cruz said to Politico. “The most encouraging thing I would say is that I think three of the lanes are collapsing into one, which is the evangelical lane, the conservative tea party lane, and the libertarian lane are all collapsing into the conservative lane and we’re seeing those lanes unify behind our campaign.”

So Cruz might be well positioned to capture the conservative vote after Donald Trump and Ben Carson destroy each other. But amusingly, he just can’t help but brag about it. He’s like a cartoon bad guy as his evil plot gets going, cackling maniacally, It’s working, it’s working! 

We saw Cruz advancing his plan tonight at the debate, calculating beneath a suck-uppy surface. Cruz answered a question about Social Security by saying, "I want to say I think both Chris [Christie], and Mike [Huckabee] are right..." (Hello evangelicals!) He launched into a response on taxes by saying, "Rand is exactly right. His plan is a good plan, and I will note that my 10 percent plan also eliminates the payroll tax, elminates the death tax, eliminates the business income tax." (Hey there, libertarians!) 

The people backing Trump and Carson seem unlikely to accept establishment candidates like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, and despite being a senator, Cruz has spent most his time in Washington loudly alienating the establishment. But Cruz’s plan isn’t perfect. The idea that the evangelical vote and the libertarian vote will merge into one doesn’t really make sense: Libertarians care a lot less about who you marry or what you put into your body than conservative Christians do.

new Economist/YouGov poll puts Cruz tied for fourth place with Jeb Bush. Cruz is the first choice of 8 percent of Republicans nationally, and the second choice of 8 percent. The poll found that 51 percent of conservatives view Cruz favorably or somewhat favorably—so it makes some sense Cruz figures if Trump and Carson burn out, those votes will skip Rubio and Bush and fall to him. 

Cruz made a point during the debate of saying he was okay with not quite being voters' first love. "If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy. But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done and I will get you home."