Just as Ted Cruz has become a serious threat for the nomination, we learn that he faces a gigantic obstacle that could doom his campaign.
In the view of the New York Times, he has one helluva charm deficit.
The paper pulled out the stops in depicting the Texas senator as socially awkward and not very likable. As the Times put it, “now comes the hard part: making friends.”
Now personality is part of politics and undoubtedly fair game. And no one would accuse Cruz of being a warm and fuzzy guy. He has a combative public personality. He’s alienated some of his Republican colleagues with tough tactics, filibusters, a government shutdown and sometimes harsh rhetoric.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a more approachable side. And the Times story seems to me to vacuum up every available negative dust ball to paint a dark picture.
It begins with the choice of opening anecdote:
“Senator Ted Cruz had been at it for several minutes, offering handshakes and uneasy smiles, when he encountered an apparent holdout in the crowd.”
The haughty holdout? A 3-year-old boy, who didn’t respond to the senator’s questions about toy dinosaurs and fire trucks. As if that’s never happened to any other politician.
“The article began by mocking a shy little boy,” a Cruz adviser tells me. He described Cruz as “a great guy to hang out with, a night owl who likes to laugh and have fun. People don’t see that side of him. He’s actually a little nerdy.”
Cruz did say in a debate—dutifully noted by the Times—that “if you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy. But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done and I will get you home.” The adviser acknowledged that this was a mistake.
I haven’t hung out with Cruz, but I’ve chatted with him enough to know that his political passion is leavened by an easy sense of humor.
This portrait matters because such impressions tend to stick as the media develop shorthand for each candidate. Think back to Barack Obama’s “you’re likable enough, Hillary.” And Cruz’s surge in the polls is guaranteed to intensify his media scrutiny.
Look at the phraseology in this story. As a college debating champion, Cruz “seems to be taking an almost academic approach to achieving likability.” Because it just don’t come naturally to him.
During stump speeches, “a Cruz performance can appear obsessively calibrated, down to the dramatic pauses deployed identically from event to event.” Any reporter who follows a candidate on the road
“He occasionally tells uncomfortable sex jokes.” Oh-kay.
An aide helps maneuver him when fans want pictures, “calling to mind the television show ‘Veep.’” So Cruz is as big a phony as the Julia Louis-Dreyfus character! Got it?
The story even recycles a nine-month-old incident which was a bum rap at the time. Cruz was talking to a New Hampshire crowd when a 3-year-old girl repeated his line, “The world is on fire?” For all the mocking headlines about CRUZ FRIGHTENS TODDLER, the girl’s mom insisted that she was not scared—and is now working for the campaign.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but a Times editorial over the weekend described him as “the bellicose senator from Texas” in ripping him for saying he would carpet-bomb ISIS, on the grounds that the military doesn’t really do such bombing.
A very different take by the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, who says Cruz “has the most direct route to the Republican presidential nomination”—and that includes Donald Trump.
Among the reasons: Cruz is positioned as the most conservative candidate, he’s raised the second highest amount of money ($65 million), and he has a very strong shot at winning Iowa. That was underscored when the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll gave Cruz a 31 to 21 percent lead over Donald Trump in the state, although the Fox News poll out yesterday gives Cruz a 2-point edge.
That, in turn, means Iowa’s famously nice voters don’t buy the image of Cruz depicted in the Times—or want someone who will in fact blow up the system.
The voters will have to decide about Cruz’s persona and whether he wears well over the course of a campaign. But let’s not push the stereotype that he makes little kids cringe.
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.