Skip to main content

Ted Cruz's Trump Battles Evoke Memories of a Former Opponent

Ted Cruz's challenge to debate Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump one on one is evoking memories of Cruz's 2012 U.S. Senate campaign, when he applied similar pressure to then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Donald Trump (left) and Ted Cruz at the Fox Business Network Republican presidential candidates debate in North Charleston, S.C., on Jan. 14, 2016.

DES MOINES, Iowa — As soon as news broke Tuesday evening that Donald Trump would be skipping the next Republican presidential debate, Ted Cruz's campaign sprung into action.

Within an hour, the U.S. senator from Texas was on the air with a friendly radio host, challenging Trump to a "mano a mano" debate. Meanwhile, staffers scrambled to reserve the domain name "," setting up a mini-website showing the billionaire's face on a Daffy Duck character, sitting atop a pile of moneybags. 

By the time Cruz went on Fox News later Tuesday night, he had a URL ready to share — and a big-picture argument to make against his closest competition in this attention-hungry caucus state.

"One candidate is here in Iowa, is asking for the support, is showing the humility to submit yourself to the voters to answer your questions, " Cruz told host Sean Hannity. "And the other is hiding from the voters, is hiding from any fair contest." 

If it seemed like Cruz was acting on experience, it's because he was. When he ran for Senate in 2012, Cruz made the same exact play against then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, hammering away at the onetime front-runner for not doing enough joint appearances and dodging any scrutiny of his record. 

All Cruz's presidential campaign had to do was swap out the second word in the original URL:

Both Dewhurst and Trump "decided they did not need to show up to answer questions to help conservatives make an educated decision, and frankly, I feel like they were both scared to debate Cruz on the issues," said state Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville, a Cruz supporter.

In the Senate race, five months before the primary, Cruz challenged Dewhurst to five Lincoln-Douglas style debates, penning a letter to the lieutenant governor that said voters are "rightly tired of short sound bites and 30-second TV ads." On Tuesday, Cruz challenged Trump to a 90-minute debate before the Iowa caucuses, hosted by a moderator of his choice if he wants. 

Trump, who leads most polls in early voting states and nationally, pulled out of the debate Tuesday evening, arguing that its host, Fox News, would not be fair to him. The announcement immediately scrambled plans for the debate, which is set to be held Thursday in Des Moines.

On Wednesday morning, Cruz's campaign and its surrogates were making a full-court press to draw Trump into the one-on-one debate. Ironically, one of those surrogates was former Gov. Rick Perry, who endorsed Dewhurst over Cruz in the U.S. Senate primary. 

"Why would he not come debate? The affront to the people of Iowa is pretty overwhelming," Perry said of Trump to reporters after an event for Cruz in this southeastern Iowa city. "From my perspective, he's saying, 'I'm too important to have to come to Iowa and lower myself to debate. You know I'm the smartest. You know I'm the most capable because I've told you so. Trust me.' I don't think the Iowa caucus-goers are going to buy into that theory at all."

Trump's campaign does not appear to be game for the time being. Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski suggested Wednesday morning in an interview with ABC that the billionaire would only debate Cruz one-on-one if they are the last two candidates standing. Later in the day, Trump himself offered a tongue-in-cheek response on Twitter, asking if the debate could be held in Canada — Cruz's birthplace and the basis of Trump's persistent questioning of Cruz's eligibility to be president.

But if Cruz's Senate campaign provides any blueprint, his presidential campaign won't let up. By Tuesday afternoon, his aides were hawking a new product from the campaign website: Hats emblazoned with the phrase "Make Trump Debate Again," a spin on the billionaire's campaign slogan of "Make America Great Again."

For months, Cruz's Senate campaign harangued about Dewhurst's absence from certain forums, to the point of dispatching a man in a duck suit to Dewhurst events. Cruz's campaign further needled Dewhurst with a campy Web ad that suggested Texans had a better chance of spotting the chupacabra, a mythical creature, than the lieutenant governor at a debate. 

"Our Senate campaign showed that voters want candidates to show up, engage and listen," said John Drogin, Cruz's Senate campaign manager. "There's really no way to replace that kind of retail campaigning directly with people." 

For Cruz, an acclaimed debater at Princeton University, getting on stage with Dewhurst was of utmost importance. He began the race as a long shot, polling in the single digits and virtually unknown to many voters — especially up against the sitting lieutenant governor, who is the arguably the most powerful statewide official in Texas. 

"It was important because people didn't know Ted Cruz that well," recalled Allan Saxe, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. "He was solicitor general in Texas, but it was a position that a lot of people didn't even know existed."

The debates, Saxe added, were "one more format for Ted Cruz to introduce himself to the Texas public."

In the race for the White House, Cruz is nowhere near the level of underdog he was in the Senate contest, but the debates have proven similarly important. They have played host to some of Cruz's sharpest confrontations with his opponents, not to mention helped fill his campaign coffers following standout performances.

Yet as Cruz's stock has risen in the Republican race for the White House, more and more parallels have cropped up between it and the Senate contest. Most recently, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida criticized Cruz over his involvement in a Chinese patent case as a private attorney, the same lawsuit Dewhurst had used to paint Cruz as working against the United States.

"It didn't work then," Cruz said of the attack while campaigning Monday in Iowa. 

Before that, Cruz was occasionally alluding to Dewhurst while addressing reports that he did not properly disclose loans he took out to help fund his Senate campaign. In an interview last week with conservative radio host Mark Levin, Cruz said the reason for the borrowing was simple: He was up against a Trump-like foe in Dewhurst. 

"When I ran for Senate, my opponent had the support of all the establishment, all of the lobbyists, all of the cronies — all of the people who are coming to support Donald Trump," Cruz said. "And like Donald, my opponent was very, very rich. He was worth $200 million, and he put $25 million of his own money into the race to run false attack ads."

Perhaps picking up on the similarities, a reporter from Texas asked Cruz on Saturday if he felt like he was "running the Dewhurst race all over again." Cruz, who was leaving an event in New Fairfield, declined to go down memory lane, keeping the focus on his current campaign. "I am very encouraged," he said.

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Support independent Texas news

Become a member. Join today.

Donate now

Explore related story topics

Politics 2016 elections Ted Cruz