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Was Ted Cruz lying about Donald Trump 4 months ago, or is he lying now?

GABRIELLE LURIE/AFP/Getty Images

Ted Cruz's campaign is in free fall, and if he loses Indiana's primary to Donald Trump Tuesday, the race for the GOP nomination will be all but over.

Naturally, then, at a morning press conference, he said that he would at long last "do something I haven't done for the entire campaign" — "I'm gonna tell you what I really think of Donald Trump."

"This man is a pathological liar," Cruz went on. "He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth. And in a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook, his response is to accuse everybody else of lying."

Let's be clear — Cruz is absolutely right about this. This presser is in response to an absurd and ludicrous accusation by Trump that Cruz's father had something or other to do with ... wait for it ... John F. Kennedy's assassination. And that's only the latest in a seemingly endless list of absurd Trump falsehoods.

But there are many layers of irony in Cruz's newfound willingness to call Trump a liar. It's essentially an admission from Cruz that he himself wasn't willing to tell voters the truth about Trump until now — four months ago, he tweeted that Trump was "terrific." It's an accusation he's long been happy to make about so many other Republican politicians but curiously reticent to make about Trump. And it comes as his reputation is sinking due to the billionaire memorably dubbing him "Lyin' Ted."

Cruz's messaging strategy has been built on calling other Republicans liars

The theme of trustworthiness has been the centerpiece of Cruz's campaign and indeed his entire national career. For years, he has attempted to portray himself as the only honest man in Washington — while denigrating other leading Republican politicians as liars, sellouts, and hacks.

As I've written, this helps explain why Cruz is so loathed by Republican elites. Not only do they understandably resent being called liars, but many of them feel that Cruz himself frequently lies and bends the truth in making the case against them (as he does in the introduction of his autobiography, where he gives an astonishingly misleading account of a debt ceiling fight designed to make himself look fantastic and his GOP Senate colleagues look craven and corrupt).

But all along, this has been part of a deliberate strategy from Cruz to position himself for the presidency. Cruz realized that many GOP voters now deeply distrusted their party elites, and he was only too happy to cater to their preconceptions. He knew that aggressively attacking GOP leaders would both distance himself from the establishment and help brand himself as trustworthy in his own right — all the better to make him the nominee.

So Cruz branded his campaign with the slogan "TrusTED" and began making his case to the voters. Last July he escalated his anti-establishment rhetoric even further, when in a shocking breach of party decorum he called Mitch McConnell, the Senate leader of his party, a liar on the Senate floor.

Yet Cruz long hesitated to use this strategy against Trump, in hopes of wooing Trump's voters

Yet when it came to Donald Trump — probably the most obvious, shameless liar in the presidential race — Cruz was strangely reticent to do what he'd been doing to every other Republican under the sun.

For the second half of 2015, Trump consistently led the polls. But rather than attacking Trump as a liar, Cruz decided to instead pretend they were best friends.

Cruz repeatedly turned down opportunities to attack Trump. Instead, he fulsomely praised the billionaire for "speaking out boldly and brashly and for focusing on illegal immigration." And when asked about Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Cruz said: "In the media, there has been no shortage of criticism for Donald Trump, and I do not believe the world needs my voice added to that chorus of critics."

Cruz did this because, like most of the political world, he assumed Trump's candidacy would collapse and that the natural order of things would reassert itself. In private comments to supporters last December, Cruz even framed it in terms of the laws of nature — he said he expected "gravity" to bring down Trump's campaign.

After that, he thought, he'd be perfectly positioned to pick up "the lion's share" of the billionaire's supporters. So when Cruz showered praise upon Trump, it was for completely self-serving reasons — he was being exactly the disingenuous politician he constantly accuses his rivals of being.

Now Cruz has been hoist with his own petard

But as the field winnowed and the race got nastier, Cruz learned that turnabout is fair play.

In the days before and after Cruz's Iowa caucus win, both Trump and Marco Rubio began to hammer home the accusation that it's in fact Cruz who has an unusual propensity to lie. These accusations gained steam after some shady-looking business in Iowa, in which Cruz supporters inaccurately told caucus-goers that Ben Carson had suspended his campaign.

Then in March, Trump coined the perfect rebuttal to "TrustTED" — by simply deeming him "Lyin' Ted." It was simple, juvenile name-calling. But Trump repeated it so often that it stuck. On Sunday, the Washington Post's Sean Sullivan interviewed a Cruz volunteer who said many Indiana voters she spoke to "are concerned with the nickname he’s been given — 'Lyin’ Ted.'"

Indeed, as the race heads toward its conclusion, Cruz is losing what's long been his biggest asset — his popularity among his party's actual voters. Gallup polling has found that Cruz's net favorable ratings among GOP voters, which have long been positive, have suddenly plummeted.

Gallup

It's no mystery why this is happening. In recent weeks, Cruz organizers have been working hard to ensure that as many delegates as possible are loyal to Cruz — even in states where Trump won the popular vote among Republican primary voters. Again and again, Trump has portrayed this as a dishonest effort by Republican Party insiders to "steal" the nomination from Trump and give it to Cruz. And Republican voters seem be becoming convinced that this is what's happening.

So it's ironic that what's long been Cruz's most potent weapon has been turned against him. He so reveled in calling every other Republican a liar — and now has been tagged as the ultimate liar himself.