AKRON, Iowa — After a week in which his disdain for the so-called “mainstream media” reached new heights, Ted Cruz came here Saturday to do what any presidential candidate would do: go hunting with a bunch of unarmed journalists.
“This is how I like reporters,” the Texas Republican senator joked as he set out on a search for pheasant, a Beretta Silver Pigeon II 12-gauge shotgun slung over his shoulder. “It would make gaggles very different if you just had a double-barrel shotgun — ‘I’m sorry. Repeat that question again?’”
A couple of hours later, Cruz returned to the Hole N’ The Wall Lodge with two dead pheasants — and just as many journalists as he left with. In a post-hunt debriefing, Cruz made sure to specify that no reporters were shot. "So it was a good day," he added.
Despite Cruz's jokes, serious frustrations have been brewing in the wake of the third Republican presidential debate, during which several campaigns believed their candidates received unfair treatment from moderators eager to whip up conflict. Cruz raised a vocal objection during the debate, tearing into CNBC hosts for running the show like a “cage match,” lamenting that the questions showed why Americans do not trust the media and imploring the moderators to strive for a more substantive discussion.
The anger has reached the point that some campaigns have reportedly planned an emergency meeting on Sunday in Washington, D.C., to wrest control of the process from the national party. As of Friday, Cruz’s campaign did not appear to be participating in the meeting. Asked Sunday if his team planned to attend, Cruz hesitated a bit before saying “time will tell.”
For Cruz, the debate drama hit close to home on Friday when the Republican National Committee announced it was suspending its partnership with NBC News for a Feb. 26 debate in Texas. The decision left officials at the University of Houston, which had been selected to host the debate, wondering whether it was still a go. Cruz suggested Saturday that they have nothing to worry about.
“I am confident that we will have a presidential debate in Houston,” he told reporters, predicting that replacing NBC will not be difficult. “Listen, when you’re getting 23, 24 million people or 50 million people watching it, I feel confident there are going to be plenty of media outlets who are happy to make millions of dollars selling ads.”
Earlier Saturday, Cruz intensified his criticism of the CNBC debate, altering his stump speech in Des Moines to address some topics he claimed the moderators did not ask about in depth, including religious liberty and his newly released tax plan. Speaking at a candidate forum hosted by the Iowa GOP, Cruz urged fellow Republicans to keep primary debates out of the hands of “a bunch of left-wing operatives whose object is — whoever the Republican nominee is, they want him to be as battered and bruised as possible so the Democrat wins in November."
“How about we stop letting left-wing liberals moderate Republican debates?” Cruz asked. “Let me lay out a radical proposition: How about if we say, from now on, ‘If you have never voted in a Republican primary in your life, you don’t get to moderate a Republican primary debate’?”
Hiking through cornfields hours later in northwest Iowa, a wisecracking Cruz was a bit chummier with his friends in the Fourth Estate. He offered an exclusive “one-on-one, no-holds barred interview” to the first reporter who shot a bird; there ultimately were no takers. When he nabbed his first pheasant, he turned to the bank of cameras following him, held it up and said, "Y'all are gonna collectively make PETA very mad at me." As the sun set on the sprawling fields behind the lodge, Cruz paused a conversation with Iowa Congressman Steve King, his hunting partner, to grab a jacket from an aide and offer it to a shivering reporter.
The hunt provided a window into Cruz’s rapport with King, the conservative firebrand whose endorsement is highly coveted among GOP presidential candidates. King is hosting three other GOP hopefuls at the lodge this weekend, but it is Cruz whom many Iowa Republicans believe has the inside track for the congressman’s support in the 2016 race.
There were no new signs Saturday that King was ready to throw his support behind Cruz, but the two easily cut the image of conservative brothers-in-arms, talking smack about their hunting talents and swapping tongue-in-cheek jokes. When King suggested he was helping stop global warming by killing pheasants, Cruz placed a hand on the congressman's shoulder and turned to reporters. "As of today, I'm pleased to announce Greenpeace has named Steve King their citizen of the year," the senator said.
When the conversation turned to whether Cruz could attend the hunt next year, the senator raised the prospect that he may be busy then as the Republican nominee for president. Then again, Cruz added, he might have a wide enough lead at that point to take a trip back to the Hole N' Wall Lodge — and maybe invite presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. In response, King appeared to stop himself from making a joke about the potential mix of himself, Clinton, Cruz and loaded weapons.
"You’ll have to fill in the blanks on that, but you know Ted got the joke," King told reporters. "He knew what I was thinking.”
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