PEWAUKEE, Wis. — Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) kicked off the two-week Wisconsin primary campaign with a surprisingly tough interview conducted by radio host and author Charlie Sykes. The host, a Cruz endorser, had sold out his annual ideas forum after announcing that the candidate would appear. When he got there, Sykes immediately asked Cruz to respond to President Obama's criticism of his call for "patrols" of "Muslim neighborhoods" to root out radicalism.
"I'm so sorry to be dismaying Barack Obama," Cruz said, joking that he'd clearly done something right if he'd angered the president and the mayor of New York City. "What I called for yesterday, and what everybody was reacting to, was increased law enforcement, increased military effort and increased police presence. You know, if you look at Europe, one of the tragic causes of this attack is that Europe's immigration policy has badly failed. They have allowed vast numbers of Islamic terrorists to infiltrate Europe. And they live in isolated communities where radicalism festers. We need to be using proactive policing, we need to be using proactive law enforcement, and intelligence and national security resources to prevent radicalism."
Sykes, who has been critical of national radio hosts for giving soft interviews, pressed a little further.
"Don't you wonder whether the kind of rhetoric we're hearing from presidential candidates might be discouraging non-radicalized Muslims from being willing to come forward and drop a dime?" he asked.
"I have no ability to control the rhetoric used by Donald Trump," said Cruz, redirecting the question. "I can tell you what my focus is. My focus is on stopping Islamists."
Cruz's Q&A, which also touched on Trump's Twitter-borne insult of his wife and his attempts to win over working class voters, capped three hours of interviews and debate. A professor at Marquette University talked about his struggle for free speech on campus; a panel of local conservative strategists agreed that Wisconsin was Cruz's state to lose. Several times, Sykes — a proud member of the ad hoc #NeverTrump movement — suggested that the Republican front-runner would doom and embarrass the party.
"We’ve seen U.S. Senate races flip because of one comment about rape," he reminded a panel of conservative women.
But Sykes repeatedly challenged Cruz, who answered most questions by attacking Trump. Suggesting that "ISIS would be celebrating in the streets" if a Trump-led America decreased its involvement in NATO, Cruz said that the real way to fight radical Islam was by winning a war with ISIS.
"We carpet-bomb ISIS into oblivion," he said. "We take out their command and control. We take our their communication. We take out their infrastructure."
Sykes asked Cruz to clarify that.
"Do you mean carpet-bombing or precision bombing?" he asked.
"I mean using overwhelming airpower to saturation bomb and take them out," said Cruz, invoking the air war that destroyed Iraq's defenses before the 1991 Gulf War.
Yet after a few more criticisms of Trump, Sykes reminded Cruz of a 2015 tweet in which he mocked the media for demanding a "cage match" between the two candidates. Had Cruz changed?
"There is a season in politics," said Cruz. "If you look at a number of the candidates who took on Donald early on, they ended up as roadkill." Matter-of-factly, he explained that he needed to built a political base before truly engaging with Trump.
Sykes pushed again, reading Mitt Romney's endorsement of Cruz, which blamed "Trumpism" for a coarsening of politics and culture. Did Cruz agree with that critique?
"What I agree with is that the policies Donald is supporting will not fix the problems of this country," he said.