ORONO — Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz told more than a thousand Maine supporters on Friday that the campaign will come down to “jobs, security and freedom,” and that he is the only candidate who can beat Donald Trump.
Appearing at the University of Maine one day before the state’s Republican caucuses, Cruz quickly launched into his key stumping points: ending what he said is government over-regulation of small businesses, protecting personal liberties and fighting corruption in Washington. The Texan also pledged to nominate a “constitutional originalist” to the U.S. Supreme Court, to take on Islamic extremists and to “stand unapologetically” with Israel.
“We are here because our country is in crisis, because we are bankrupting our kids and our grandkids, because our constitutional rights are under assault every day,” he said.
Taking a swipe at Trump, his chief rival and the Republican front-runner, Cruz said it is “easy to talk about making America great again,” adding that “you can even put that on a baseball cap.” But Cruz said it is harder to understand what is truly needed, quickly transitioning into what he said was “the boot on the throat” of small businesses.
But he also acknowledged the deep divisions that are tearing apart his party by offering an olive branch, of sorts, to supporters of his political rivals – all except Trump, that is.
“If you have supported or are supporting these other good people, and you don’t want to see Donald Trump as the nominee, the only campaign that can beat him is ours,” Cruz said.
Cruz’s rally was drastically different – in style, content and format – from the Trump event that drew more than 1,000 people to downtown Portland on Thursday.
Trump’s speech was more free-form, stream of consciousness and focused heavily on responding to a blistering dismissal and condemnation of his campaign earlier that day by Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee. Cruz, by contrast, laid out his three priorities at the outset and walked the crowd through them one by one during his roughly 45-minute speech. There was also far less security than at Trump’s event, and media were given access to the candidate as well as the crowd. Ranking state legislators and party activists attended Cruz’s rally. At Trump’s, Gov. Paul LePage was the highest-profile Republican figure.
Like Trump, Cruz was interrupted several times by protesters. But while Trump dismissed them with his now-trademark “Get ’em out” instructions to his security team, Cruz engaged with the protesters while ginning up the conservative crowd with swipes at liberal colleges.
“I love startled college students,” Cruz said after one student expressed surprise at his statement that the United States is slow to use military force. “I get that college, Marxist professors tell you that America is the source of everything bad in the world. It is a lie.”
Cruz pledged repeatedly to repeal Obamacare, which he called “the biggest job killer in America,” as well as institute a flat-tax system, eliminate the Internal Revenue Service and address illegal immigration. He warned that the Supreme Court was “just one liberal justice away” from decisions that would erode religious liberties and Second Amendment rights.
Those were the kinds of conservative, hard-talking statements that drew supporters to UMaine’s campus early in hopes of securing a prime seat to see Cruz, who is hoping that a victory in Maine will chip away at Trump’s lead in delegates and swing the race in his favor.
Cruz supporters quickly filled the Collins Center for the Arts auditorium, many carrying “TRUSTED” signs and stickers, a play on the candidate’s name.
Cruz’s faith has driven his appeal, particularly among evangelical voters. While Trump has attempted to court the same voters, several of the Cruz supporters who showed up Friday have not been sold.
Shelby Philbrook, a 23-year-old Belfast resident, said Cruz was “the most moral candidate” in the race.
“He has good standings, good ethics, good values,” said Philbrook, who said she too is a regular churchgoer.
Philbrook said Trump’s penchant for bombast runs counter to her values.
“The language he uses … he’s like a 5-year-old,” she said. “He’s very childish.”
Trump also was on the mind of Cruz supporters David Cyr, 61, and Mark Bigge, 54, both from Millinocket. The two questioned whether Trump truly supported the Second Amendment, and suggested they wouldn’t vote in the general election if Trump wins the nomination.
“What’s the point? He’s made a mockery of (the race),” Bigge said.
Cruz’s visit to Orono followed a raucous Republican debate Thursday night in Detroit, Michigan, in which he and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio took turns baiting and degrading Trump. Facing a steady Trump march toward the nomination, Cruz and Rubio utilized Trump-like tactics to attack their rival. At one point Cruz told Trump to calm down and “count to 10.”
Twenty-three delegates are at stake in Maine’s Republican caucuses, which will be held Saturday at 22 locations around the state. While the number of delegates is relatively small compared to those available in more heavily populated states, the candidates are battling for every vote during an election year that has left the Republican establishment bewildered and anxious for the party’s chances of recapturing the White House.
Trump has won 10 states so far, compiling 329 of the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. While Cruz is not far behind, with 231 delegates, he and the other contenders will have to halt Trump’s momentum to have any hope of defeating the business mogul. Rubio has accrued 110 delegates while Ohio Gov. John Kasich has 25.
But some Republican leaders – leery of what a Trump candidacy would mean to the party in 2016 and over the long term – are now openly discussing the possibility of a “brokered” Republican National Convention in order to nominate someone else even if the New Yorker wins enough states. While such a scenario could benefit Cruz, he also has struggled to win support from national Republican leaders with his strong anti-establishment message and willingness to buck party leaders in Washington, D.C.
Speaking with reporters before Friday’s rally, Cruz said a brokered convention would be a “disaster.”
“A brokered convention is a pipe dream of the Washington establishment,” he said. “It is their hope that they can come and snatch this nomination away from the people. … All of their chosen candidates, all of their golden child candidates, aren’t winning.”
He added, “If the Washington deal-makers try to steal the nomination it would be a disaster. It would cause a revolt. Instead the answer is real simple. We have to win this nomination.”
Cruz also addressed speculation that he and Rubio could run on the same ticket.
“I think we’re seeing discussions within the party about coming together,” he said. “I think those discussions are happening among the activists and those discussions are happening among the donors. There is no doubt that if we remain divided, Donald Trump wins. He is a path to catastrophe for this country.”
Cruz said that was not personally active in discussions for a unity ticket.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage surprised many when he endorsed Trump last week – despite criticizing the candidate weeks earlier – and then introduced him to the crowd in Portland on Thursday. One Cruz supporter, 88-year-old Marion Bailey of Bangor, described herself as a strong LePage backer and was disappointed that he threw his support behind Trump.
“I don’t know what to say about him, really,” Bailey said of Trump. “He’s just … well, maybe it’s not all his fault. Maybe he was just brought up differently.”
Bailey likes Cruz because of his faith and planned to attend Saturday’s caucuses to show her support for the candidate.
“He’s our salvation,” Bailey said. “There’s nobody else like him. I just love him. He’s Christian and I believe in him.”