Ted Cruz hopes his Texas charm hits home across the South

AP News
|
Posted: Feb 19, 2016 7:15 PM
Ted Cruz hopes his Texas charm hits home across the South

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — Ted Cruz was more than a thousand miles from Texas, but said he felt right at home.

"Texas and South Carolina, we share so much in common. Both are southern states, we're gun owners, military veterans, we love God," the Texas senator declared, sparking a standing ovation from about 400 supporters at an auditorium a block from Myrtle Beach's oceanfront boardwalk last week.

It's a line Cruz repeats nearly everywhere he goes in South Carolina ahead of Saturday's primary, and a sentiment he'll continue to trumpet as he woos voters in a string of southern states voting on "Super Tuesday" 10 days later. With his down home values and penchant for cowboy boots, Cruz is laying the southern charm on thick, hoping to convince voters across the land of sweet tea and fried okra that he's one of them — and that it'll be enough to buoy him against front-runner Donald Trump and the rest of the Republican field.

Cruz has gained ground on Trump in some national polls but continues to trail him in many upcoming southern states — including Texas — according to some polls.

Despite their shared love for guns, God, geography and veterans, South Carolina and Cruz's home state aren't so similar culturally.

"The truth is, if he walked around Texas and said, 'You're a lot like South Carolina' they'd look at him like he was crazy," said Bill Miller, a Texas Republican consultant.

Even some Cruz supporters concede that trying to out-southern the field may not be enough. From the start of his White House bid nearly a year ago, though, Cruz's campaign has spent more time in the South than any other, building a grassroots network he wants to ride to success in South Carolina and on March 1, when Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and Texas all vote.

"It's ironic that Trump is from New York and people in the South are supportive," said Rob Carres, a 45-year-old investment adviser from Alphacetta, Georgia, who was campaigning for Trump in South Carolina. "His toughness, it's stronger than geography."

Cruz was able to overtake Trump in Iowa, which like South Carolina is heavily evangelical. But Nse Ekpo, second vice chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, says lumping his state together with Iowa, or even with Texas, is tough, noting that twice-divorced Newt Gingrich won South Carolina four years ago.

"Politically, South Carolina is a wild card," said Ekpo, who has endorsed Cruz.

Trump has tapped into tea party outrage with the political system that helped once-longshot Cruz win his 2012 Senate campaign.

Playing to a particular state's audience ahead of its primary might seem obvious for any presidential hopeful — but Cruz is one of the few Republicans making a cultural hard sell.

Trump isn't softening his big-city brashness, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wants to impress the state's veterans with his foreign policy chops. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is asking voters who have supported his family in the past to do him the same favor, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich hasn't much modified the message that carried him in New Hampshire.

A reason to be reticent is that, sometimes, presidential candidates trying to forge a down-home connection with voters when they're far from home can backfire. Mitt Romney in 2012 famously declared in Mississippi that he'd just breakfasted on "a biscuit and some cheesy grits" — drawing groans from a crowd who knew he meant cheese grits.

Former GOP rival Carly Fiorina ditched her alma mater Stanford and tweeted that she was pulling for Iowa in the Rose Bowl — a move that flopped when college football fanatics saw it as disloyal. Then there was John Kerry, who drew scorn in Philadelphia in 2004 when he opted for Swiss cheese on his cheesesteak, instead of traditional Cheese whiz.

Cruz so far has avoided such pitfalls. But that doesn't mean that playing up his regional sensibilities will translate into votes.

Texas is unique thanks to its fiercely independent streak — it has its own state anthem and its state flag is startlingly obsequious — but also its sheer size both geographically and by population. Texas' nearly 27 million people is roughly five and a half times the number that live in South Carolina — though Texas can't compete with the roughly 35.5 million-population in the other southern Super Tuesday states combined.

Lucretia Griffin, a retired retail manager from Spartanburg who has cousins in Texas, said she's supporting Cruz because of his conservative values — not his southern ones.

"I think South Carolina and Texas both love liberty," Griffin said.