CLEVELAND — If there's one thing Ted Cruz relishes, it's a confrontation. Yet in his first outing on the presidential debate stage, the Texas senator found himself far away from the center of the action, largely above the fray while a handful of foes brawled in made-for-TV moments.
It was not entirely a surprise — Cruz has sworn off what he calls "Republican-on-Republican violence" — but it offered the clearest example yet of his approach to a fractured GOP field led by unpredictable billionaire Donald Trump. While Trump lobbed insults at candidates and moderators, Cruz managed to duck the rancor and convey his central pitch to Republican primary voters with little difficulty.
“We see lots of campaign conservatives, but if we’re going to win in 2016, we need a consistent conservative," Cruz said as the debate clock wound down, giving him one last chance to drive home his anti-establishment appeal.
Asked earlier in the debate about his polarizing reputation in Washington, he made no apology.
"If you're looking for someone to go to Washington to go along to get along ... to agree with the career politicians in both parties who get in bed with the lobbyists of special interests, then I ain't your guy," Cruz replied.
Cruz's answer came between contentious exchanges between Trump and others on stage over everything from the businessman's sexist comments to his inflammatory views on illegal immigration. The debate was also lit up by a tense episode between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul sparked by a question about government surveillance.
After the debate, Cruz allies argued his performance showed what he has claimed all along — that he will not get bogged down in nasty intra-party squabbles on the path to the White House.
"He came across as a statesman," spokesman Rick Tyler told reporters. "He didn’t engage in the kind of back-and-forth bickering and arguing.”
"I see him tonight as very statesmanlike, very serious, and [he] demonstrated his fidelity to the Constitution even in the short amount of time he had," added state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.
The action-packed nature of the debate did not entirely work out in Cruz's favor. He seemed to receive less speaking time than the more assertive candidates, and at one point, he asked to interject before getting cut off by a commercial break.
Following the debate, Cruz surrogates said any campaign always wishes its candidate got more time to speak in a debate. Tyler specifically cited three topics the campaign had hoped Cruz would be asked about: the Affordable Care Act, religious freedom and President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.
The closest Cruz got to acknowledging the more raucous aspects of the debate was an allusion to Trump's comment that "stupid" political leaders are responsible for federal inaction on border security.
It’s not a question of stupidity," Cruz said. "It’s that they don’t want to enforce the immigration laws.”
It is on that issue that Cruz was anything but reluctant to a draw a broad contrast with the GOP field. He touted his efforts to derail the immigration reform bill initially supported by a fellow debater, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
“A majority of the candidates on this stage have supported amnesty," Cruz said. "I have never supported amnesty."
Videos: Watch Ted Cruz debate highlights
Ted Cruz on Russia and China and cyberwar
Ted Cruz on ISIS
Ted Cruz on 'looking for someone to speak the truth'
Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters