LUBBOCK — Ted Cruz could barely get the words out before the audience sprang to its feet and drowned him out with applause.
"For the first time in a long, long time, Texas is going to play a central role," the U.S. senator from Texas started to say Saturday, drawing perhaps the strongest reaction to anything else he uttered before this friendly audience.
Coming at the end of the biennial convention of the Texas Federation of Republican Women, the scene illustrated a budding hope among the GOP faithful that the state's earlier-than-usual primary will make it matter more than ever before in modern history. With the nominating contest still more than three months away, it has already become an unrelenting theme in Texas politics — and one that few speakers left unmentioned as they sought to rally hundreds of the state's top female Republican activists.
The red-clad audience ate up the talk of Texas' influence in 2016, which came from speakers ranging from state representatives to statewide officials like Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick, who urged fellow Republicans to use the opportunity to pick a "conservative leader who’s going to shake up Washington." Addressing federation members Friday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spoke solemnly of the chance they have to shape the race for the White House after years of plugging away in Texas to make the state redder and redder.
“Now it’s our time," Patrick said. "For the first time, we’re going to really have a say in who the next president is. March 1 is going to be a big day."
Republicans such as Patrick, who is the Texas chairman of Cruz's campaign, are specifically hoping March 1 is a big day for the U.S. senator, who has been working to consolidate home-state support ahead of then. After starting his remarks by calling women the "heart and soul" of the Republican Party — "and brains!" a member of the audience interjected — Cruz launched into a stump speech that was interrupted by shouts of "We love you, Ted!" and "We're Cruzin'!"
Cruz's favorite-son status was affirmed by a straw poll taken Saturday that he easily won with just under half the vote out of 11 candidates. Cruz's closest competition was retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who netted 65 votes to Cruz' 203.
Cruz was the only 2016 candidate to show up at the convention, and on Saturday, he responded to a question about his attendance by asserting he is taking nothing for granted in his home state. At the same time, he expressed confidence he would be one of two last men standing in the GOP primary — the other being a more moderate Republican — with the field "winnowing out," a term he used four times while speaking with reporters.
Despite all the talk of the presidential race, just one other campaign was seriously represented here: that of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose wife, Janet, spoke Friday night. Cruz's team was the most active throughout the conference, maintaining one of the two booths supporting a presidential candidate — the other was for Carson — and dispatching his wife, Heidi, to mingle with federation members Friday night ahead of his speech the next morning.
Janet Huckabee, whose husband ended up getting only 2 percent in the straw poll, pitched him Friday as the only candidate with the depth of executive experience to handle the "don't-knows" of the presidency. She also spoke highly of the role Texas is playing in the nominating process, telling federation members, "People will be watching you in the next few months."
Another relative of a 2016 candidate, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, had a speaking slot Friday but appeared to take a pass on plugging the campaign of his dad, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Now some of you all may know who my bet’s on in 2016, but I won’t go into that," said George P. Bush, whose father ultimately received only 1 percent in the straw poll. "We’ve got great conservative candidates running for the highest office in the land because our country needs a new direction immediately."
Unsurprisingly, speaker after speaker were in universal agreement on who the next president should not be: Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Speaking Friday at the convention, Gov. Greg Abbott relayed a message from his daughter, Audrey, a freshman in college who recently turned 18 and has the opportunity next year to vote for the first time in a presidential election.
"She said she will join you in ensuring that Hillary is not the first woman president of the United States," the governor told federation members. Plus, Abbott added in a reference to one of his biggest beefs with Clinton as of late, "Audrey is aghast with Hillary Clinton for talking about confiscating weapons. Now that tells me she doesn’t know nothing about Texas history – or Texas women. Because the government once tried to disarm the people of Texas, and it was women who responded by making that flag that said, 'Come and take it.'"
Abbott was joined in the anti-Clinton chorus by at least three other elected officials who joked in their remarks that the Democratic field features a known socialist — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Cruz, who has made the socialist riff a regular part of his stump speech, continued his needling of the scandal-scarred Clinton with an echo of his suggestion the next Democratic debate be held in Leavenworth, the federal prison in Kansas.
Another reliable foil at the convention was Battleground Texas, the group whose efforts to make Texas more competitive for Democrats were the talk of the state the last time the federation held its biennial convention. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas won chuckles at the closing luncheon Saturday for suggesting Battleground Texas be renamed "Burial Ground Texas," and speaker after speaker before him took turns ridiculing the organization for its setbacks last year — while raising the prospect it could be back again in 2016.
"Of course some of them would say things would be different in Texas' presidential elections. Are you worried?" Texas House Speaker Joe Straus asked the federation crowd Thursday, drawing loud "no"s. "Anyone who thinks the Democrats are about to start winning in Texas is either delusional or working for CNBC," Straus added, referring to the TV network that was criticized for its handling of the last Republican debate.
Straus was not the only person who provided some levity in the main hall at the Lubbock Civic Center. Also in the mix was a guitar-strumming Angela Paxton, the wife of Attorney General Ken Paxton, who introduced her husband Friday with a musical ode to his penchant for taking the federal government to court.
"I'm a pistol-packin' mama," she crooned, "and my husband sues Obama."