BARRINGTON, N.H. – Sen. Ted Cruz was greeting supporters when a man's hat emblazoned with New Hampshire's state motto, "Live Free or Die," caught his eye.
"I love that," Cruz said to the man. "That's something Texas can relate to."
Cruz, who strode in from a snow-slicked parking lot clad in cowboy boots, is a long way from Texas both geographically and ideologically. He traveled to New Hampshire for the first time this year ahead of an expected presidential run, capping a weekend that has seen a flurry of potential candidates crisscrossing its highways and winding rural roads to position themselves for a presidential primary that has no clear front-runner — and is 11 months away.
The Texas Republican is trying to tap grassroots conservative support in a state with a strong independent streak that values limited government — but has voted Democratic in the past two presidential elections. Cruz made his first stop here at a "chili and chat event," where questions — and answers from Cruz — morphed into political testimonials.
A group of people in the front row — one man was wearing a glittery leprechaun hat — repeatedly interrupted his speech with standing ovations. After the event, one of those men chased Cruz down, insisting on giving him his first campaign check. The senator firmly refused the check, citing the fact that he is not officially a presidential candidate.
"Ted's got to realize that we want him to run," said the man, Gary DiPiero of Saugus, Mass., noting that his wife let him bring the check. He traveled with about 20 people who are urging Cruz to run. But most, he said, live in Massachusetts and can't vote in the New Hampshire primary.
The fired-up crowd braved icy, slick roads to come out for Cruz, with many citing a love of the Constitution and a willingness to buck the notion that New Hampshire will vote only for an establishment Republican. Cruz received loud applause when his 2013 filibuster against President Obama's health-care law was mentioned.
"Of all the people I've seen this week, this is the largest contingent," said Bernie Casey of Durham, N.H., who saw Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. "I think [Cruz] is going to do real well in New Hampshire," he said. "He's going to appeal to the conservatives, the real, old New Hampshire people," and not recent transplants from elsewhere in the Northeast.
Cruz said that he is seriously considering a presidential run and told the crowd to "stay tuned." He noted that in the past week he has been in Iowa and and South Carolina, as well as New Hampshire — all early voting states. He also said that his oldest daughter has decided she's on board with her father running. The family lives in a Houston high-rise and does not have a back yard for their dog.
"If you win it means that Snowflake will finally get a back yard to pee in," Cruz said, quoting his 6-year-old. "That's Caroline Cruz's political analysis."
At one point, Cruz said that the world was on fire; a young girl in the crowd immediately said aloud, "The world is on fire?" to an amused crowd. Cruz looked at the girl, Julie Trant, 3, who was sitting with her mother, Michelle, and said that he and others were trying to make the world better for her.
Cruz called for unlimited campaign contributions, equating the flow of money to free speech. When asked about immigration, he said that there is "no stronger advocate" for legal immigration in the Senate than him, but that the borders must be secured. He reiterated calls for the abolition of Common Core and the Internal Revenue Service.
Robert Jursik, a registered Republican from Epsom, N.H., said he has been following former Texas governor Rick Perry over the past few days. He said he would seriously consider Perry, should he make a White House bid, but wanted to hear what Cruz had to say.
"You’re always going to get larger and more excited crowds with Ted Cruz, but I also think in the end he’s got to be able to show he can lead. And that’s where the rubber’s going to hit the road," he said.
Cruz said here and at a dinner in Lincoln, N.H., in the more conservative northern part of the state, that the grassroots support he has received in the state and nationwide has been "breathtaking." Cruz was the keynote speaker at the Grafton County GOP's Lincoln-Reagan dinner, where a tie he was wearing was auctioned for $350.
“The only way we’re going to make this happen is by building a grassroots army in New Hampshire and in all 50 states," Cruz said in Lincoln. He told the crowd at a resort nestled in New Hampshire's White Mountains that he thinks the state's definition of gun control is like Texas's. It is, he said, "hitting what you aim."
"That's right," a man yelled back.
New Hampshire not only has parallels to Texas, he said, but to the rest of the nation.
"A country that values freedom and opportunity above all else? Live free or die," Cruz said. "That sums up what it means to be an American."
The Tribune's Abby Livingston contributed to this report.