DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told the moderators of the Republican presidential debate at Iowa Events Center on Thursday that he might just take his ball and go home.
His threat to leave the stage came after he accused Fox News’ questioners of encouraging his rivals to attack him.
“I would note that the last four questions have been, ‘Rand, please attack Ted. Marco, please attack Ted. Chris, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted.”
Cruz’s comment provoked loud boos from the audience. His critique of the debate questions came after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was asked about how his plans to confront the jihadi group ISIS would differ from those put forth by Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Moderator Chris Wallace offered a retort to Cruz.
“It is a debate, sir,” Wallace said.
Cruz wasn’t satisfied with Wallace’s response.
“No, no, a debate actually is a policy issue,” Cruz said. “But I will say this, gosh, if you guys say — ask one more mean question, I’m going to have to leave the stage.”
It was unclear if this was a real threat, a badly delivered joke or a shot at Donald Trump, who Cruz previously mocked for actually boycotting the debate over a beef with Fox News. In the spin room after the debate, Cruz campaign consultant Jeff Roe told Yahoo News that Cruz was indeed kidding.
“Hopefully his humor was a little better than for it to be confused, but yeah, no he was joking,” Roe said.
Cruz concluded by urging the moderators to “stay focused” on substantive issues.
“The most important determination any voter is going to make in this election is who’s best prepared to be commander in chief, who has the experience, who has the knowledge, who has the judgment, who has the clarity of vision and strength of resolve to keep this country safe,” Cruz said. “That is what this debate is all about, and I would suggest let’s stay focused on those issues rather than just attacks directed at each other.”
Wallace said he felt “the questions were about issues.”
The next question went to Rubio, who began with a comment on Cruz’s behavior.
“First of all, don’t worry I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you asked me,” Rubio said.
In the spin room following the debate, Rubio’s communications director Alex Conant said the exchange was not “a very good moment” for Cruz.
“Ted Cruz had a rough night. This was obviously Ted Cruz’s worst debate performance so far,” Conant said.
This post was updated with comments from the spin room at 11:51 p.m.