MERRIMACK, N.H. — When Sen. Ted Cruz finally made it to the primary season campaign trail Friday, more than four full days after officially announcing his presidential bid, he said he felt good. Really good.
“I am amazingly, powerfully, profoundly optimistic,” Cruz (R-Tex.) said here, telling the crowd that the reaction to his campaign announcement had been “breathtaking.” “I’m optimistic because of each of you, the men and women in this room who will not let freedom go.”
On the ground in chilly New Hampshire, it seemed he had some reason for the sunny outlook, with his Granite State appearances this weekend greeted enthusiastically by rowdy crowds. “Cruz missile!” one man with a thick New England accent yelled out during the Rockingham County Republican Committee and Republican Women’s brunch in Greenland Saturday morning.
Still, Cruz’s New Hampshire debut, much like the rest of his first week as a candidate, demonstrated both the promise of his presidential candidacy and the potential hurdles facing his uphill campaign.
The Council on Islamic Relations drew headlines for asking Cruz not to speak at the second event of three on his New Hampshire schedule Friday and Saturday because Robert Spencer, the co-founder of the group Stop Islamization of America, was also set to appear, though the two men were not scheduled to share the stage.
Also drawing scrutiny: the fact that Cruz’s first appearance as a declared presidential candidate in Merrimack was organized by Jack Kimball, the provocative former head of the New Hampshire Republican Party who resigned in 2011 as the party’s executive committee tried to remove him from his position. Kimball introduced Cruz here.
It’s a week that couldn’t have started on a higher note. Campus attendance requirements for the Liberty University convocation where Cruz personally announced his run Monday in Virginia guaranteed a cheering arena crowd of thousands, setting the optics bar high for the rest of the field. His team said they met their pre-announced first-week fundraising goal of $1 million within the first 24 hours of his campaign, bringing in $2 million by the end of the week. Conservative talk show hosts raved about his rollout.
But the missed opportunities showed up early, too.
Instead of hitting the trail in key early voting states amid a wave of launch momentum Monday, Cruz’s first stops were closed-door fundraisers in New York, ahead of a planned 10-city fundraising swing in the next month. As an underdog contender, he’ll need to keep focusing much of his time and effort on his campaign war chest, which remains one of the biggest question marks surrounding his candidacy.
Then, rather than heading to a Des Moines VFW or a New Hampshire breakfast event, Cruz last week found himself back in Washington for a string of budget votes, including a series of amendments sprung by Democrats as potential 2016 land mines for Republican candidates. His District swing drew fire from GOP primary season rival Rand Paul as well, with the Kentucky senator blasting his Hill colleagues in the field of presidential hopefuls for “reckless” and “irresponsible” budget votes.
Finally, just ahead of his first post-announcement rally, Cruz seemed unprepared for the media firestorm that followed his admission that he and his family were likely to enroll in a plan under the Affordable Care Act – the law that he has dedicated his Senate career, and his campaign, to overturning. His team later said he was weighing other insurance options, but conceded that he was still likely to wind up signing up for coverage under President Obama’s signature health-care law.
By the time he reached New Hampshire Friday, Cruz appeared to have settled on a frame to explain his insurance decision to potentially skeptical Republican primary voters. When asked by one brunch attendee about his decision to enroll in Obamacare, Cruz responded that his hands were tied. “Being a federal employee, our options are limited under this terrible law,” he said in Greenland. “There are all sorts of laws I oppose that I nonetheless follow. I support a flat tax, but that doesn’t mean I refuse to pay my taxes in the meantime.”
The man seemed satisfied with Cruz’s answer. The Cruz team is hoping the rest of the state’s primary voters feel the same: Most polls have the senator hovering in the low single digits in New Hampshire – but his team says it plans to play hard in the state. The campaign, which just hired a state director, Ethan Zorfas, points to New Hampshire’s large Catholic population — about 38 percent of the state’s residents are Catholic, according to Gallup — and its independent streak. Cruz pressed a number of issues here that appeal to the state’s independent, libertarian-leaning GOP primary voters, including opposition to government data collection and support for the Second Amendment.
In Greenland, Cruz talked about his plan for a flat tax, an issue he is hoping resonates in a state with no sales tax, income tax on dividends only and a very high property tax rate. He reminded the crowd that his presidential campaign announcement came on the 250th anniversary of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech. The timing, said Cruz, wasn’t an accident.
“New Hampshire understands ‘Live Free or Die,’” he said, citing the state’s motto.
Cruz may still be finding his campaign sea legs – but at least in his first swing, conservative crowds gave him an early thumbs-up.
“He’s one of the only true conservative voices we have down in Washington, D.C.,” said John DeMello of Danbury, N.H., who came out to hear the senator Friday. “He says what he means and he means what he says.”