WHITEFIELD, New Hampshire (AP) — Ted Cruz says he is the first true conservative running for president since Ronald Reagan — and that will carry him to the Republican nomination come July.
But as he campaigns through New Hampshire, which tends to favor more moderate Republicans, many undecided voters — and even some of his supporters — say the Texas senator needs to broaden his appeal to mainstream conservatives.
The balancing act of wooing moderate Republicans while staying true to his unwavering conservative political brand presents a dilemma.
Cruz doesn't always present a hard edge; he rose to prominence nationally after reading Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" during a filibuster of President Obama's health care law. But if he changes too much, he risks losing the ideological consistency and reputation for challenging both Democrats and Republicans that have come to define him.
In an interview with The Associated Press on his campaign bus, Cruz rejected the idea that he needs to shift gears.
"People are tired of campaign conservatives," Cruz said as the bus rolled north toward the small town of Whitefield. "They're tired of empty rhetoric. They want a consistent conservative — someone they know and trust."
He said that evangelical Christians, many of whom sat out presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, could help catapult him to victory. So could "Reagan Democrats," whom he defines as blue collar workers, union members and gun owners living mainly in the Midwest and through the Northeast.
Many in the Republican Party view Reagan as the model commander in chief. Cruz has often said that, like Reagan, he will bypass Congress, including lawmakers in his own party, if members try to impede his ability to serve the American people. That "Reaganite" approach, he says, is how Reagan clinched the Republican nomination in 1980 and how he wants to do it now.
"In 1980, as a 9-year-old boy, I was cheering loudly for Ronald Reagan in that primary watching those debates as a kid," he said. "The Republican Party has never once nominated a Reaganite for office since 1984."
Guy Eaton, a 57-year-old letter carrier, came to see Cruz on Monday in Washington, New Hampshire, a hilly resort town of about 1,000 people that was incorporated in 1776. Eaton said Cruz needs to broaden his appeal.
"If he's going to be president, he has to represent the whole country, not just one portion of the Republican Party," Eaton said.
John Oliver is one of Cruz's staunchest backers. He made "Cruz for President" bumper stickers on his own way back in 2013. But he, too, wants to see some changes.
"He needs to become more positive, not so angry," said Oliver, a 43-year-old retired member of the U.S. Navy who drove more than two hours from his home in Vermont to see Cruz at Lindy's Diner in Keene.
Not so angry? Cruz himself has raised questions about rival Donald Trump's temperament, and Trump responded in kind Tuesday when asked about it in Winterset, Iowa.
"When you talk about temperament, Ted has got a rough temperament," Trump told reporters. "You can't call people liars on the Senate floor when they're your leader. ... I haven't talked about his temperament, but he's got to be careful because his temperament is, you know, has been questioned a lot."
Back in New Hampshire at Lindy's an obligatory stop for presidential candidates, payment is cash only, the specials include apple crisp and split pea soup, and decorations include a model of the bus from the 1950s TV show "The Honeymooners."
As a longtime Cruz watcher and supporter, Navy retiree Oliver is hoping Cruz can tweak his sometimes divisive message to bring along other Republicans more reticent to embrace him.
"I think he can," said Oliver, who has tattoos of a bald eagle and American flag on his forearms. "I think it's built into his campaign to do that. The guy started out in the single digits. As it moves along, he's going to broaden and open it up."
But Cruz backer Harry Price, a New Jersey firefighter who drove five hours to see the candidate in New Hampshire, doesn't want his man to give an inch.
Bushy mustache draped over his mouth, Price described Cruz as a principled politician who understands how the Washington establishment works and can "blow the whole place up."
"I love that," Price said inside the Keene diner. "His message is very clear, very simple, well thought out."
But Cheryl Charron, an undecided New Hampshire voter, said she wanted to see more out of Cruz.
"He needs to appeal to a broader audience," the 57-year-old Charron said, sitting in a booth at Lindy's as she waited with her college-aged daughter for Cruz to arrive. She praised Cruz as someone who "sticks to his convictions" but said she wasn't sold fully on him just yet.
But some of his supporters believe Cruz should stay on message for now, and consider modifying his strategy if he wins the nomination.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed from Winterset, Iowa. Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP and find more of his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-bauer .