Howell — GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz apologized Wednesday night for telling a joke at a Livingston County Republican dinner about Joe Biden less than a week after the vice president lost his eldest son to brain cancer.

"Vice President Joe Biden," the Texas senator said to faint laughter among 650 Republicans packed in a Howell banquet hall Wednesday. "You know the nice thing? You don't need a punch line."

"I promise you it works," Cruz added. "The next party you're at, just walk up to someone and say, 'Vice President Joe Biden' and just close your mouth. They will crack up laughing."

The presidential candidate's comments immediately set off a social media firestorm on Twitter. Cruz issued an apology less than an hour after his keynote speech ended.

"It was a mistake to use an old joke about Joe Biden during his time of grief, and I sincerely apologize," Cruz said in a statement. "The loss of his son is heartbreaking and tragic, and our prayers are very much with the Vice President and his family."

Biden's eldest son, Beau, died Saturday of brain cancer. Beau Biden was a former two-term attorney general of Delaware and is to be buried Saturday in the Biden's hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.

Cruz used the joke to talk about Biden's past comments about firing off a double-barrel shotgun to ward off intrudersone of several stump-speech jabs at Democrats.

"That is very, very good advice — if it so happens that you're being attacked by a flock of geese," Cruz said.

When asked why he told a Joe Biden joke, Cruz turned and walked away.

Cruz was the keynote speaker for the Livingston County Republican Party's Lincoln Day dinner at Crystal Gardens banquet center in Howell.

"He clearly wasn't trying to be disrespectful," said Saul Anuzis, Cruz's Michigan campaign chairman and a former Michigan Republican Party chair. "Timing could have been better."

Lon Johnson, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, slammed Cruz late Wednesday night for the Biden remarks.

"When it counted, and it always does for someone attempting to become the leader of our nation, Sen. Cruz demonstrated a true lack of Christian compassion for a father mourning a son," Johnson said in a statement.

Cruz's visit to Howell was his first campaign event in Michigan since launching his campaign for president in March.

"He's willing to fight for what's right, even against the Grand Poobahs up in Washington," said state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Township, who also is a leader in Cruz's Michigan campaign.

A conservative firebrand in the U.S. Senate, Cruz made clear he intends to appeal to constitutionally conscious Republicans, Evangelical Christians and Reagan Democrats in Michigan's March 8 presidential primary next year.

"Michigan is ground zero for the Reagan Democrats, the working men and women getting hammered by the Obama (agenda)," Cruz said. "…We are working to build a grassroots army across Michigan and every state in the union."

Cruz called for a federal flat tax, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and repealing "every word of Obamacare."

He said there would be consequences of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton succeeding Democratic President Barack Obama in the White House.

"If we have four or eight more years going down this road, I think we risk losing the great country in history," Cruz said.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood

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