TAMPA — U.S. Senate hopeful Ted Cruz, basking in the national spotlight since defeating Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, appealed directly to Hispanics and portrayed his smashing primary victory as part of a “great awakening” of American voters during a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention Tuesday night.
Cruz, who has said he's not a fluent Spanish speaker, ably dropped a little of his Cuban father’s native language into his remarks and made the case that President Obama was playing racial politics. He seemed confident on stage as he spoke, pacing back and forth as enthusiastic members of the Texas delegation cheered and waved their white cowboy hats at all the right times.
“Unfortunately, President Obama’s campaign is trying to divide America — separating us all into groups,” Cruz said, “telling seniors that Medicare will be taken away; Hispanics, that we’re not welcome here; and sending the vice president to preach a message of division. It’s tragic, how far we’ve come from hope and change.”
Cruz’s campaign consultant, Jason Johnson, said the line about Latinos feeling unwelcome referred to Democratic claims that Hispanics didn't have a home in the GOP.
Cruz, who would be the first Hispanic senator from Texas if he prevails in November, also said that Latinos are suffering under Obama’s policies, causing their small businesses to drown in red tape and sending disproportionate numbers of them into the unemployment line.
And, drawing on the inspiring story of his father’s journey from Cuba, he told how Rafael Cruz had been beaten and tortured in his homeland and came to his country with $100 sewn into his underwear.
“My father is here tonight,’’ Cruz said. “When he came to America, él no tenía nada, pero tenía corazón. He had nothing, but he had heart, a heart for freedom. Thank you, Dad.”
Texas Democrats said Cruz was trying to pander to Hispanics after winning a primary on the strength of Tea Party-backed enthusiasm and an embrace of policies they say would harm Latinos. Underscoring the importance of the crucial voting bloc, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, released a video from his Democratic Latino group before Cruz even spoke. It poked fun at Cruz’s limited Spanish speaking skills and said Hispanics know a mentira — a lie — when they hear one.
“This is the general election where [Cruz] highlights the fact that he is Hispanic, as opposed to the primary election when he pretended that he isn’t,” said Democratic strategist Harold Cook. Cruz's opponent, Democrat Paul Sadler, said Cruz missed an opportunity to focus his speech on what he wanted to do to help Texas.
Cruz is going to bat for Mitt Romney at a time when Romney needs every Hispanic vote he can get. Recent polls show Romney trailing Obama among Latino voters by as much as 40 percentage points. His speech also came on a night when convention managers were putting their minority outreach on public display. The roster featured, among others, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Latino businessman who spoke of onerous federal business regulations, and former U.S. Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama, a black Democrat-turned-Republican.
State Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, speaking from the convention hall, said Latinos open to voting for a Republican president will respond positively to Cruz and his Hispanic roots.
"It's a plus," he said. "Many of us see our own family journey in Ted Cruz."
Cruz’s speech was a bright spot for the Texas delegation, which is being housed at a far-flung resort some 30 miles from Tampa and is occupying some of the worst real estate available near the back of the convention floor.
The former solicitor general is the only Texan to have gotten a prominent speaking role, a testament to his star power.
Cruz portrayed his election as part of the movement that brought Tea Party-backed insurgents like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to the Senate and led to the defeat of establishment Republicans in states like Utah, Indiana and Nebraska.
"Something extraordinary is happening, something that has dumbfounded the chattering class,” Cruz said. “What is happening is a Great Awakening.”