I Watched Ted Cruz Debate in College. Don’t Count Him Out.

“In that environment,” says a fellow debater, “he was cool, spectacular, a god.”

Senator Ted Cruz addresses voters during a town hall meeting at the Lincoln Center on the campus of Morningside College April 1, 2015 in Sioux City, Iowa.
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Sacha Zimmerman
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Sacha Zimmerman
Aug. 6, 2015, 5:02 a.m.

What do you stand for? Ted Cruz was asking me. We were sitting on a staircase in a towering, run-down New York City brownstone, at a college party. It was 1991. What would you fight for? he continued.

I remember thinking: Who asks questions like this? I was 18 and a freshman at Columbia. Cruz was a senior at Princeton.

Like, um, racism? I responded. I mean, against it.

My memory of the conversation is less than perfect all these years later, but I do recall that Cruz held me in a discomfiting gaze and said something about “every American” that was — to my horror — deeply conservative. I asked whether he was a Republican, and he responded enthusiastically in the affirmative. Cruz explained that we all grow more conservative as we age. He was thus on the political vanguard. Why wait to grow old, when you can be conservative now?

Cruz and I were at the same party because we were both college debaters — specifically, parliamentary debaters. For those of us who glommed on to this extracurricular activity, we had a kind of shadow life not apparent to our college-of-record friends. I took classes with my Columbia comrades, I roomed with them, I smoked pot with them — but on weekends, I was with my other friends: my debate friends.

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From September until April, my teammates and I would rent cars and caravan to Northeast colleges — from as far south as Johns Hopkins to as far north as the University of Toronto. Every. Weekend. It was a circuit of hyper-verbal, hypercompetitive nerds who were all almost exclusively bound for law school. At the time, it seemed terribly cool. In retrospect, less so. There were about 20 participating schools, including all the usual Northeast suspects: Mt. Holyoke, Swarthmore, Harvard, Yale, Bryn Mawr. Schools had teams as small as two debaters or as large as 20 or more.

Columbia and Princeton had large debate squads with competitive reputations. But Cruz’s status was legendary. He and his partner, David Panton, dominated the scene and ended up in more final rounds than any other team in the country their senior year. Cruz and I were friendly, but I have no doubt he looms much larger in my memory than I do in his. (His campaign did not make him available for an interview for this piece.) He was Michael Jordan in a game where I mostly sat on the bench.

Recently, I got in touch with eight of my old friends from that world and asked them for their memories of Cruz. Those conversations, as well as my own recollections, arguably shed some light on what we might see tonight when Cruz takes the stage at the first GOP presidential debate.

“PARLIAMENTARY” IS CODE for extemporaneous debate — no legions of notecards, citations, or research. We debated cases that were revealed moments before we were tasked with getting up to speak. If the opposing team hit me with a case in favor of, say, making Luxembourg a fully owned subsidiary of France, then I’d have to counter with why that was a terrible idea — right then and there, regardless of my pitiable knowledge of the topic or my personal politics. It was an olio of improvisation, current events, persuasion, and performance.

When you had to face Cruz in debate, “you walked in assuming you would lose.”

Ted Cruz was a king in Parliamentary Debate Land. And standing out in that crowd was not easy. Debate attracted swaths of wunderkinds who shared a geeky, cocky confidence; many of them came from a world of private high schools and rigorous speech teams. Nevertheless, says Raj Vinnakota — a Princeton debater who knew Cruz and who is now the CEO of the SEED Foundation in Washington, D.C. — when you had to face Cruz in debate, “you walked in assuming you would lose.”

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At Princeton, according to Vinnakota and Scott Angstreich — a regulatory and appellate lawyer in Washington — debate practice was taken seriously, and Cruz was an excellent mentor, providing feedback and helping to strengthen younger members of the team. “In that environment,” says Vinnakota, who was two years younger than Cruz, “he was cool, spectacular, a god.”

He was excellent at connecting with a large audience (think: machine-gun bacon). Dae Levine — a former Columbia debater in Cruz’s year who is now a communications strategist living in Australia and who has twice been the chair of Democrats Abroad — thinks of it as a kind of bewitching political narcissism: “It’s not visual. It’s not: Look at me. It’s: Listen to me. No, believe me. No, follow me.” Indeed, emotion — not just intelligence — was very much in Cruz’s skill set. Angstreich (who is Jewish) recalls a debate that he was arguing involving the Holocaust. Before Angstreich got up to speak, Cruz leaned over to him and whispered, “Be outraged!”

Cruz also frequently relied on his now-well-worn origin story in debates — his father’s epic journey from Cuban freedom-fighter to penniless foreigner in America. “Everybody knew Ted Cruz’s father’s story,” says Vinnakota. “We could all recite it!” No one, I think, should be surprised to hear this narrative tonight or in future GOP debates.

It’s also worth pointing out — with Cruz facing long odds in the GOP primaries, and with other candidates at tonight’s debate commanding a lot more attention — that Cruz’s eloquence proved to be a great equalizer for him when his back was against the wall. “I’ve experienced and witnessed when Ted has pulled out debates purely at the force of his rhetoric,” Vinnakota says, remembering one debate in particular that he would ultimately win. The other team, Vinnakota recalls, had “crushed Ted’s argument.” By the time Cruz arrived onstage to speak a final time, the case was “dead on arrival.” “But Ted gave one of the most impassioned, flourished speeches. His focused anger and the power of his rhetoric just won over the crowd. If you were flowing the argument” — charting the debate — “he didn’t say anything. You have to be impressed by it. He is a gifted, gifted speaker.”

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Cruz’s extraordinary intelligence was very much his calling card — on and off the debate stage. At one tournament, I recall a dozen or so of us being splayed out across twin beds, heads resting against white plaster walls, drinking bottled beer. Young men (who constituted most of that world) with loosened ties and wrinkled chinos sat rapt: Cruz, even then wearing boots-and-a-suit in that awkward way of all Texas politicians, was holding court on Kant’s categorical imperative — his moral absolutism apparently already fully formed.

THE CHALLENGE FOR Cruz — which The New York Times highlighted several months ago in a piece about his debating career — was that he wasn’t necessarily likable. “I remember him as a scary, driven machine who fought a protracted, bloody land war for total victory,” says Ted Niblock, a Johns Hopkins University debater in Cruz’s year who is now general counsel for a clean-energy startup.

Which makes it all the more important to bring up Cruz’s best friend and college debate partner, David Panton. Panton, a Jamaican student whom everyone remembers fondly, was the friendly George W. Bush to Cruz’s Dick Cheney.

“I remember him as a scary, driven machine who fought a protracted, bloody land war for total victory.”

“Panton was the foil,” says Vinnakota. “He was an equal member of the duo. But Dave was raised around needing to understand social graces; he could pull off anything. It had the complementary effect of them working really well together.”

“No recollection of Cruz is complete without remembering Dave Panton,” agrees Niblock. “He was super-smart, funny, and even somewhat self-effacing. I have always suspected — although of course he could never admit it — that Panton realized early on that the way to seem even more likable was to stand next to Cruz.”

(RELATED: The 10 Worst Moments in Presidential Debates)

Panton, now the chairman of his own private-equity firm, has remained a loyal friend as Cruz’s political stardom has taken off. (He did not respond to requests for comment.) Cruz and Panton were both debate partners and roommates. And the evidence for how well their partnership worked could be found in their suite at Princeton, which was brimming over with “hardware” — the trophies, plaques, gavels (yes, really, honorific gavels), and other awards garnered at debate tournaments. The room was positively dripping with silent applause.

I once watched Cruz and Panton slay a team from the University of Pennsylvania in a final round. Penn ran what we called a “hypothetical syllogism.” It went something like this: You’ve just graduated, and before you can even find a job, your college alumni association asks you for money — don’t give them any. Admittedly, it’s a silly case. Panton gave the expected arguments about how fortunate we all were to have access to renowned institutions and how we should not be ingrate elitists. But Cruz crushed it. He looked meaningfully at the audience. I don’t recall his precise words, but here’s how I remember what he said: Even if — he paused and shook his head with a disbelieving chuckle. Even if you think your college did nothing for you, or insulted you — he paused again and then spit out: Leave a penny. He pointed down and to the side, as though he were pointing at a lone, nasty penny. Tape a penny to the form and send it back. If you really hate them, then send a message.

The question is: After Cruz brings the pain, can he also channel Panton’s charm?

BACK IN 1991, a small war was waged in a crowded auditorium at Yale. The war came disguised as an election. At stake was the presidency of the American Parliamentary Debate Association. The contenders were Ted Cruz, Dae Levine, and Ted Niblock.

They couldn’t have been more different. Cruz was the straight-laced champion looking for another win. Levine was the clever, alternative chick who oozed New York City cool — and who was losing to Cruz. Cue the wild card: Niblock entered the race as a Cruz protest candidate — representing what he calls “an irreverent, counterculture” style of debate that was frank but very effective.

“I was not as smart, committed, or skilled as Ted was,” says Niblock. “I was completely random and unpredictable. You can’t outsmart a truly crazy person.” That’s why a group of anti-Cruzniks drafted Niblock into the race. Sure it would be funny, but these folks also really did not like Cruz.

“He seemed to be the presumptive winner,” says Niblock. “This was on top of his frequent tournament victories, which were earned in the most grinding, methodical, joyless way possible. This might be my biggest problem with him: He took all the fun out of it. He prepared and prepared, came to the tournament on the weekend, executed his plan, and then went back to Princeton to take the fun out of something else.”

It was a crazy day — Niblock’s bizarre, platformless entry seemed somehow exhilarating. Voting for him was like breaking the rules, free-falling through an election that was dazzlingly unimportant to just about everyone but Cruz. The Columbia team stood behind our own and backed Levine, but Niblock had delivered a shot of madness to Cruz’s method. “My only electable quality was that I was not Ted Cruz,” says Niblock.

Ultimately, giddiness and Niblock prevailed. Levine and Cruz were co-vice-presidents. It is, to the best of our collective knowledge, the last election Cruz ever lost. “I think he’s spent his whole life trying to make sure he doesn’t lose another election,” says Levine. Niblock agrees. “Every moment of his public life has been carefully calculated to bring him to this,” he says. “And if Senator Cruz has decided he wants to be president, he has a plan.”

He has a plan: Everyone I interviewed for this article is solid on this point. We debaters understand how he thinks — how he sees a multitude of situations and consequences unfolding in his mind’s eye. He’s a politician: It is all stage time now. And starting tonight, a lot will depend on just how well he debates.

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