Carl Leubsdorf: Is Ted Cruz winning over critics?

March 15, 2014 

In a weekend of contrasts, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, sought favor from two dramatically different audiences: his natural base at the Conservative Political Action Conference and his frequent mainstream media targets -- and critics -- at the white-tie Gridiron dinner.

He may have succeeded more at the latter, where only a minority probably shared his views.

The after-dinner Gridiron consensus was that, despite stretching its "singe, don't burn" adage in some jabs at President Barack Obama, Cruz seemed less hard-edged, more human, than the Texan's pre-dinner image or his in-show portrayal as a prehistoric "Flintstone cowboy."

Meanwhile, Politico's influential post-CPAC analysis rated him among the weekend's losers, despite a good crowd reception and a second-place presidential straw-poll showing that far exceeded last year's tie for seventh. James Hohmann faulted Cruz for not hanging around to schmooze and for stirring a controversy by suggesting GOP establishment heroes Bob Dole and John McCain lost presidential elections because they didn't "stand for principle."

Politico's assessment seemed exaggerated because, besides those missteps, his underlying message -- that Republicans should stand on principle and avoid compromising them -- echoed that most famous of all CPAC speeches: Ronald Reagan's 1975 call for "raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors."

Cruz's speeches reflected the disparity between the two audiences. While many of his Gridiron punch lines might have engendered either laughter or applause at CPAC, some CPAC lines would have only drawn disapproving groans from Gridiron's assemblage of media moguls, government officials and journalists.

His sharpest CPAC shot at the press came in likening the media to the Democrats.

While millions of Americans opposed Obamacare, he said, "the Democrats said, the mainstream media said, though I repeat myself, they said this is hopeless, don't you understand, just move on, just accept it."

He then said, erroneously, that "the president of the United States is the first president we've had who thinks he can choose which law to enforce and which laws to ignore." He didn't take into account George W. Bush's proclivity for declaring his intention of ignoring provisions of a bill he was signing.

In signing a 2008 defense measure, Bush said some provisions "purport to impose requirements that could inhibit the president's ability to carry out his constitutional obligations. ... The executive branch shall construe such provisions in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president."

In the end, Cruz's presidential quest can't succeed without some backing from both groups.

He needs strong support from the CPAC types, because more moderate Republicans will oppose him. But he can't win the nomination or the presidency without enough mainstream media acceptance that he is a serious conservative with a positive agenda, rather than a shrill, negative outsider.

Carl P. Leubsdorf, former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News, can be reached

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