STORM LAKE, Iowa (AP) — Lisa Naslund clutched a photo of her son Dillion in his military fatigues as she waited about an hour for a chance to meet Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz in this northwestern Iowa town.
The 25-year old soldier suffered from post-traumatic stress after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2012, it became too much to bear and he took his own life.
Cruz patiently met would-be voters — lending an ear, asking questions, taking selfies. It was part of an effort to catapult his campaign going into the leadoff presidential caucuses on Feb. 1. Naslund was at the event to stress to the Texas senator the importance of getting help for service members with PTSD.
She had finally made it to the front of the line when the typically brash and brusque Cruz surprised even his closest observers by drawing her in for a long hug.
The tea party favorite is showing voters a softer side, whether through jokes in campaign speeches or personal interactions like the one with Naslund. Contrast that with the image his opponents like to emphasize — an image Cruz himself pushes at GOP debates: uncompromising, sometimes abrasive, attacking Democrats and Republicans alike, calling them part of the "Washington cartel."
Naslund saw none of that.
"He was very easy to talk to," she said. "He was very heartfelt. You can definitely feel the passion in him. Very compassionate."
The approach seems to be working. Iowa polls show him with an edge over national front-runner Donald Trump, and Cruz is pulling his weight in other states.
In his travels across rural Iowa, the Princeton and Harvard graduate is looking to find common ground with the people who could make or break his presidential hopes. Crowds are responding with fervor.
"You sense more emotion, more compassion," said Rolf Carlson, a 72-year-old retired clinical psychologist from Spirit Lake. "Much more." He came to see Cruz at a pizza restaurant in his town, about 60 miles north of Storm Lake.
Cruz still makes sure to toss some bait to reel in his conservative base. He quotes Scripture, calls President Barack Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton as "feckless and naive" and promises that any jihadi entering a military recruiting station will "encounter the business end of firearms wielded by a dozen Marines."
But he also weaves in references to his favorite films and television shows, like the comedic, fairy-tale adventure "The Princess Bride" and "The Simpsons" cartoon, along with impersonations of politicians, Obama and John F. Kennedy among them.
Cruz was a college debate champion and he can display a quick wit when reacting to the inevitable interruptions that come with any long campaign.
"That's the Obama NSA," Cruz joked with the lights went off briefly during a speech at a pizzeria in Spirit Lake. "They hear there's a gathering of Iowans seeking the peaceable overthrow of the government."
The bulk of Cruz's presentation is disciplined and well-rehearsed, varying little from stop to stop. At Harvard, he was an aspiring actor, and his stage techniques often are evident during campaign speeches.
His inflections rise for dramatic effect, like when promising to repeal Common Core education standards. They can drop to a hush, such as when he tells the story of how his father was imprisoned in Cuba and his teeth were "shattered out of his mouth" before fleeing to the United States in 1957.
The candidate also pauses for comedic effect at the same lines every time.
"I'm happy to answer," he says, then pauses, "or dodge any question you have."
Cruz tries to meet with everyone lining up for selfies or wanting campaign buttons, posters, hats and even homemade drawings of Cruz signed. He talks to children, shakes hands, slaps backs, gives hugs.
It's far off the image Cruz has cultivated from the presidential debates. He has criticized the media for orchestrating a "cage match," threatened to "carpet bomb" the Islamic State group and suggested building a wall to help secure the country.
Becca Bowers, a 26-year-old from Pomeroy, brought her three young children — all under age 4 — to hear Cruz speak in Pocahontas. She fought through the crowd after the event to meet him and see if he could persuade her to vote for him.
"I asked him if he would do what he said he would do," Bowers said. "He said he would. He looked me in the eyes. He was very trustworthy."
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