MILFORD, New Hampshire — By way of impression or praise, John F. Kennedy — a Democrat, of all people — made frequent, flattering cameos in U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s stump speech during a bus tour across New Hampshire this week.
“Look, JFK campaigned on tax cuts, limiting government, standing up and defeating the Soviet communists,” Cruz told supporters jammed into an Italian restaurant Sunday night. “JFK would be a Republican today.”
Throughout his five-day tour of New Hampshire, the GOP presidential hopeful from Texas couldn't resist referencing, or performing impressions of, the 35th president, a native of nearby Massachusetts.
Cruz sprinkled his remarks with other New England references as well: engaging in self-admitted pandering over the Patriots football team; painting late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts as the defeated political villain of the Reagan years and invoking the Gipper's “Irish wit.”
The nuances charmed locals who turned out by the hundreds, and they may well allow him to consolidate enough Republican primary votes to make the trip worthwhile.
But it is in Iowa, 1,100 miles away, where Cruz is betting his campaign. Whether interrupting his courtship of the Hawkeye State for this New England fling was worth the risk will only become clear when the votes are counted.
In Iowa, Cruz has consolidated support among the state’s largest conservative voting bloc — evangelicals — and is in a dogfight with real estate mogul Donald Trump for a first-place showing in the Feb. 1 caucuses.
But Trump is the prohibitive frontrunner in New Hampshire, which follows with its primary Feb. 9.
Cruz is likely to finish anywhere from second to sixth, with four other candidates — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — fighting for the more moderate New Hampshire voters who sent Mitt Romney and U.S. Sen. John McCain on their way to the GOP nomination in past cycles.
With the moderate vote splintered, Cruz has some hope of taking a large enough slice of the pie to finish in New Hampshire's top tier. If he doesn't win Iowa, a strong showing in New Hampshire takes on more importance.
With temperatures plunging to single digits and wind chill factors below zero, Cruz made his case to New Hampshire conservatives in snow-covered hamlets such as Freedom and Exeter. Local general stores were the setting for many of Cruz’s events.
The venues were small, but the crowds of hundreds spilled outdoors at nearly every stop.
“I’m not sure that the Trump crazies will come out," observed retired music producer Susan Hamilton in North Conway.
“It really depends on what happens on this tour," she added. "This is the kind of thing that will make him seal the deal and rise to second at the very least, if not win it."
Hamilton called herself a Cruz “groupie” and followed him on his Tuesday travels. She was not the only one.
Former Saturday Night Live writer Robert Smigel was there as well, prominently brandishing a hand puppet of Triumph the Comic Insult Dog, a character from Conan O’Brien’s late night skits.
Smigel, the puppet and a camera crew relentlessly stalked the senator at most of the Tuesday stops.
Absent from Iowa, Cruz still found himself taking fire from adversaries there.
Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad on Tuesday encouraged caucus-goers to vote against Cruz. Then former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, a key backer to Cruz’s 2012 Senate campaign, endorsed Trump in Iowa.
But neither Branstad’s remarks nor Palin’s rambling endorsement speech impressed Martha Bartel, a retired registered nurse who attended a Cruz event in Exeter Wednesday.
“I don’t think that governor should have said what he said,” she said. “I think that was very un-American. I don’t respect that governor at all.”
And Palin? “When I heard her last night talk about Mr. Trump, I was not impressed at all,” Bartel said. “She sounded so flighty. She sounded so different from when she was running last time.”
Not everyone watching Cruz in New Hampshire adored him.
“I think he’s a dangerous man,” said Roy Neel, who attended the Exeter town hall to size up the man. "I think he could win the general election, not just New Hampshire."
"That’s what frightens me," said the longtime Democratic operative and onetime aide to former Vice President Al Gore. "Four months ago, I wouldn’t have thought that.”