Sea­soned de­bater Cruz finds groove against O’Rourke

For­mat suits sen­a­tor, but chal­lenger has own scor­ing mo­ments.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Tilove jtilove@states­man.com

UNIVER­SITY PARK — For the first time in his re-elec­tion cam­paign, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had Demo­cratic chal­lenger U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, right where he wanted him Fri­day night — on a de­bate stage con­fined be­hind a lectern and con­stricted by 90-sec­ond an­swers, 60-sec­ond re­sponses and 30-sec­ond re­but­tals.

It forced O’Rourke to con­front Cruz and his fusil­lade of ac­cu­sa­tions head-on, leav­ing him look­ing a lit­tle bit more like a con­ven­tional politi­cian and not as the above-the-fray, post-par­ti­san can­di­date O’Rourke has sought to pre­sent him­self as.

It was a fore­see­able trap, and a third of the way through the hour­long de­bate at South­ern Methodist Univer­sity, it sprang shut. As John Dro­gin, an old Cruz hand, put it in a tweet: “Beto be­fore de­bate: I will not at­tack @ted­cruz. Beto dur­ing de­bate: At­tack at­tack at­tack.”

But O’Rourke’s harsh­est at­tacks were in re­sponse to what he de­scribed as Cruz putting words in his mouth and his “trick in the trade, to con­fuse and in­cite based on fear.”

When Cruz sug­gested that O’Rourke’s rhetoric af­ter a re­cent Dal- las shoot­ing, in which a white po­lice of­fi­cer killed a black man in the man’s own home, might in­cite vi­o­lence against po­lice, an ir­ri­tated O’Rourke snapped back, “This is why peo­ple don’t like Wash­ing­ton, D.C. — you just said some­thing that I did not say and at­trib­uted it to me.”

“What did you not say?” replied Cruz, the cagey de­bater.

“I am not go­ing to re­peat the slan­der and mis­char­ac­ter­i­za­tion,” replied O’Rourke, the wary prey.

On the road in his im­prob­a­ble run, O’Rourke has treated Cruz as his cam­paign’s Volde­mort: a men­ac­ing specter that ev­ery­one in his au­di­ence is aware of, but whose name is bet­ter left un­said. It has al­lowed O’Rourke to stay on the high road.

But a de­bate does not al­low a can­di­date to ig­nore his op­po­nent, es­pe­cially one as prac­ticed in the art of slash-and-burn pol­i­tics as Cruz.

There will be twom­ore de­bates — the next one at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton next Sun­day, a town

hall-style en­counter with the can­di­dates on stools, and the fi­nal one back be­hind lecterns Oct. 16 in San Antonio. At those events — but re­ally for the rest of what has be­come the coun­try’s most-watched U.S. Se­nate race — O’Rourke will have to en­gage with Cruz and fig­ure out a way to do so while not scuff­ing his anti-pol­i­tics brand, or die a death by a thou­sand cuts.

It is a mis­sion com­pli­cated by the fact that on such is­sues as guns, the flag and im­mi­gra­tion, O’Rourke is more lib­eral than most of those Tex­ans who re­li­ably show up to vote, though gen­er­ally not as far out as Cruz’s taunt­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.

The peril for O’Rourke would be if, as Austin-based Repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant Bren­dan Stein­hauser tweeted Satur­day af­ter­noon, “The IDEA of Beto O’Rourke is more im­pres­sive (than) the RE­AL­ITY of Beto O’Rourke. Sen­a­tor @ted­cruz per­formed very well and won the de­bate last night. Both were sub­stan­tive but Cruz’s po­si­tions are more in line with the ma­jor­ity of Tex­ans.”

Ev­ery­one knew go­ing in that Cruz would be the more skill­ful de­bater. He was a de­bate cham­pion at Prince­ton Univer­sity, de­bated his way through the 2016 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial pri­maries and has de­bated U.S. Sen. Bernie San­ders on pol­icy three times since. He misses noth­ing and leaves no op­por­tu­nity un­ex­ploited, a ten­dency so ir­re­sistible to Cruz that it pro­vided the open­ing for O’Rourke to de­liver the line of the night.

For the last ques­tion, NBC5 journalist Julie Fine, one of two de­bate mod­er­a­tors, said, “We’d like to end this for both of you on a very pos­i­tive note. We’d like to ask you to tell us some­thing you ad­mire about your op­po­nent.”

O’Rourke noted that both he and Cruz were elected to Con­gress the same year and both have young chil­dren.

“I know how hard he works, I know how much time he has spent away from his kids. I know what a sac­ri­fice that is to his fam­ily,” O’Rourke said.

Cruz be­gan by re­cip­ro­cat­ing O’Rourke’s kind words, but then he de­toured to take a last shot at O’Rourke, very thinly dis­guised as praise.

“Beyond that, I think Con­gress­man O’Rourke is pas­sion­ate, he’s en­er­getic. He be­lieves in what he’s fight­ing for,” Cruz said. “In fact, I had very much the same sen­ti­ment — you know last year I did three de­bates with Bernie San­ders and I ex­pressed this at all three de­bates. Bernie San­ders be­lieves in what he’s fight­ing for. He be­lieves in so­cial­ism. Now I think what he’s fight­ing for doesn’t work, but I think you are ab­so­lutely sin­cere, like Bernie, that you be­lieve in ex­pand­ing gov­ern­ment and higher taxes, and I com­mend you for fight­ing for the prin­ci­ples you be­lieve in, and I re­spect that.”

To which O’Rourke replied, “True to form.”

Those three words, just be­fore their clos­ing state­ments, did the work of Don­ald Trump’s re­peated ref­er­ences to Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted” in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial de­bates, and Ron­ald Rea­gan’s “there you go again,” to Jimmy Carter in the 1980 pres­i­den­tial de­bate, which proved so ef­fec­tive that he re­de­ployed it against Wal­ter Mon­dale four years later.

But gen­er­ally, the de­bate for­mat com­ple­mented Cruz’s style and cramped O’Rourke’s. As a teenager, Cruz was a “Con­sti­tu­tional Cor­rob­o­ra­tor,” part of a troupe of young con­ser­va­tives who mem­o­rized the Con­sti­tu­tion and would ap­pear at civic clubs, each writ­ing out a sec­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion on an easel and then ex­plain­ing its mean­ing. In high school, Cruz was pres­i­dent of the Drama Club; now he ex­e­cutes his cam­paign ap­pear­ances like a stage ac­tor, re­peat­ing the same per­for­mance, word for word, with the same pauses and in­to­na­tions each time.

While one might think O’Rourke’s ex­pe­ri­ence in a punk band might have pre­pared him for pro­vid­ing short, punchy an­swers, his town hall per­sona owes more to jazz im­pro­vi­sa­tion, riff­ing on themes and telling il­lus­tra­tive sto­ries from the road in a re­mark­ably co­her­ent stream of con­scious­ness.

But at the de­bate, O’Rourke men­tioned vis­it­ing all 254 coun­ties so many times it came across as trite and gim­micky, and he had to rush through sto­ries of peo­ple he met along the way in such a hurry they lost their telling de­tails and seemed re­duced to props.

“Rep­re­sent­ing Texas doesn’t mean do­ing a photo op in every county with re­porters in tow,” Cruz said.

And photo ops they were — on a grand scale. But that’s not all they were.

They are also what en­abled O’Rourke, an ob­scure con­gress­man, to be­come a Demo­cratic cult fig­ure — in Texas and beyond — draw­ing huge crowds, rais­ing a lot more money than Cruz and more money than any U.S. Se­nate can­di­date in the coun­try, and turn­ing a race that should have been an easy layup for Cruz — whose pub­lic ap­pear­ances now reg­u­larly in­clude some schtick about how he beat late-night host Jimmy Kim­mel in a oneon-one bas­ket­ball con­test at Texas South­ern Univer­sity in June — into one that the Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port on Fri­day changed from “leans Repub­li­can” to “toss-up.”

The rat­ing change seemed a leap. While polls have shown a tight race — from Cruz up 9 points to O’Rourke up 2 points, with most sug­gest­ing Cruz is a few points ahead — Cruz re­mains a man who very nearly won the GOP nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent in his first term in the Se­nate, and might well have if it hadn’t been for Trump.

He also en­joys all the ad­van­tages of a Repub­li­can run­ning in Texas — an es­tab­lished elec­torate with a long habit of vot­ing Repub­li­can, a ticket mate in Gov. Greg Ab­bott and a party ap­pa­ra­tus that knows how to get out the vote, as op­posed to Texas Democrats, who last week lost a seem­ingly safe and crit­i­cal ma­jor­ity-His­panic Demo­cratic state Se­nate seat in a spe­cial elec­tion.

On Satur­day morn­ing, the free­wheel­ing O’Rourke was back on the road — livestream­ing, as usual — on his drive to a town hall in Del Rio ac­com­pa­nied by U.S. Rep. Joaquín Cas­tro and twin brother Julián, the for­mer mayor of San Antonio, talk­ing mu­sic and pol­i­tics.

But as state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Col­leyville, wrote, retweet­ing an im­age of O’Rourke and his trav­el­ing com­pan­ions, “You mean the Cas­tro broth­ers who are from San Antonio? Where a ‘safe’ Demo­crat Texas Se­nate seat just went to the first His­panic Repub­li­can state Sen­a­tor? Those Cas­tro broth­ers? From that area? Well, good luck w/their help O’Rourke! #Keep­Tex­as­Red!”

Beto O’Rourke

Ted Cruz

TOM FOX / THE DAL­LAS MORN­ING NEWS / POOL

Sen. Ted Cruz makes a com­ment as Rep. Beto O’Rourke waits his turn dur­ing Fri­day’s de­bate at South­ern Methodist Univer­sity in Dal­las.

NATHAN HUN­SINGER / DAL­LAS MORN­ING NEWS

Cruz and O’Rourke shake hands Fri­day af­ter the de­bate at SMU’s McFar­lin Au­di­to­rium in Dal­las. The sec­ond de­bate, a town hall-style event, takes place next Sun­day at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton.

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