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Cruz Control: The making of a media star

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Aug. 10, 2013: Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during the family leadership summit in Ames, Iowa. (AP)

How did Ted Cruz, in the space of eight months, become a media darling, a media target and someone who is depicted as a plausible candidate for president?

Think I’m overstating things? Just look at how his decision to renounce his Canadian citizenship has become the week’s hottest political story.

The Texas Republican hasn’t even finished his first year in the Senate, and he has become the face of Tea Party conservatism and been inducted into the 2016 speculation sweepstakes. Not bad.

Of course, Cruz had no need to renounce his Canadian citizenship. Having been born to an American mother in Calgary, he was automatically an American citizen. But he obviously didn’t want to give the GOP its own birther controversy, plus wanted to prove he would take the U.S. side in any future showdown about maple syrup imports or something equally grave.

So the Canadian declaration was Cruz’s way of signaling that he wants to be a presidential player, while also grabbing a share of the spotlight in the dog days of August. ( Buzzfeed offered its take on “The 17 Most Canadian Things About Ted Cruz.” He’s too polite?)

But the real reason that Cruz has skyrocketed to prominence is that he not only slams liberals, he beats up on his own party. And there’s nothing the press loves more than a troublemaker who stirs things up on his side of the aisle. 

If John McCain is calling Cruz and others “wacko birds,” that’s journalistic gold. The Washington Post, in a front-page profile yesterday, dubbed him "an eloquent yet polarizing figure."

Cruz has insisted that Republicans should refuse to vote for any budget that includes funding for ObamaCare — in effect risking a government shutdown over the issue. 

“There are some Democrats, some in the media and some Republicans who portray a shutdown as a horrible calamity,” Cruz told a Heritage Foundation gathering. “I think the term ‘shutdown’ is a misnomer. It’s actually a partial, temporary shutdown. We have seen them before.”

The GOP establishment wants no part of a brinksmanship approach to ObamaCare and is trying to tamp down such talk.

He is a firebrand who relishes going on the attack. Weeks after Cruz was sworn in, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow compared his speaking style to that of Joe McCarthy (after he'd made some ugly insinuations about Pentagon nominee Chuck Hagel).

Cruz isn’t exactly pandering to the Fourth Estate. As he said in a recent Time interview: 

“I do think in the media there is a tendency to describe conservatives as one of two things: stupid or evil. And those are the two categories that every conservative gets put in by Democrats and the media. A conservative is either stupid — too dumb to know the right answer — and even worse, if they actually know the right answer, then they’re evil. They want people to suffer. I suppose I feel mildly complimented in that they have recently invented a third category, which is crazy. It’s the alternative to stupid or evil. And now crazy is the third one, because it seems inconceivable that there could be Americans who believe in free-market principles and believe in the Constitution and are working to defend them.”

That’s okay, we like pols who beat up on us too. Good for traffic!

When Cruz gets heckled in a Dallas town meeting, as happened this week, cable news plays the clip again and again.

In the Time interview, Cruz was asked whether he’s running for president. He did not deny it, uttering a bromide about how good policy is good politics.

Cruz doesn’t have to declare anything. The media is making him a contender.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.