HOUSTON — Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday explained his long-anticipated endorsement of Ted Cruz, saying he waited until the week before the Texas primary because he wanted to maximize his impact on a presidential race in which Texas is likely to play a pivotal role.
"The right time for the governor to come out and make an endorsement is right before the Texas primary," Abbott said in an interview with The Texas Tribune, comparing his decision with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's decision to endorse Marco Rubio days before the Palmetto State's primary. "It would’ve been lost if I had endorsed Ted right before the South Carolina primary, or right before the Iowa caucus."
While Abbott had been expected to back Cruz, he kept his powder dry for months, hoping to lure candidates to Texas and shine light on issues important to the state. At least two hopefuls ended up coming to meet Abbott: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who toured the border with Abbott 11 months ago, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who visited the Governor's Mansion in October.
"It was important that we not lock out or block out the ability of candidates to come in and understand Texas, understand especially our challenges with the borders and how Texans face challenges that are different from Iowans’ or people in New Hampshire or wherever," Abbott said. "And I wanted to make sure they all came and asked for the vote of Texans and understood what Texans’ needs were."
Abbott's endorsement arrived as Cruz faces a credible threat in his home state from billionaire Donald Trump, especially with Trump coming off three straight victories elsewhere. While some of Cruz's supporters in Texas, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have said the senator needs to notch a resounding win Tuesday, Abbott declined to set expectations, including whether Cruz could get more than 50 percent of the vote and sweep the state's delegates.
"This is stuff for pundits," Abbott said. "All Ted really needs to do is to go out and explain to the public who he is and what he stands for. The reality is we are now at a point in the election where there’s only one genuine conservative who’s running for the president of the United States, and he is that person. If he can make that connection with voters, things are going to work out just fine."
Abbott and other Cruz supporters in Texas have not denied that Trump is the senator's closest competition at home. In the interview, Abbott largely avoided taking shots at any of Cruz's rivals, instead drawing a gentle contrast between the senator and Trump when asked why he believes Cruz would make a better nominee than Trump would.
“Donald Trump has tapped into a lot of both the anger of frustration that Americans have with politics and the status quo right now — so has Bernie Sanders, to be honest," said Abbott, referring to Hillary Clinton's chief rival for the Democratic nomination. "We've seen it on both sides. The difference between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is that Ted Cruz not only taps into the anger and frustration. Ted Cruz, more than anybody else, lays out exactly what a conservative agenda is and shows how it can be done.”
Asked if he, as governor, could work with a President Trump, Abbott said he "can work with any president ... and it's a whole lot easier working with a federal government that follows the Constitution as opposed to violates the Constitution."
The difference between Cruz and his rivals on immigration — perhaps the most important issue to Texas — is that Cruz is "the only candidate for president that lives in a border state, the largest border state, where the most profound challenges are taking place," Abbott said. While Cruz has been sharply criticizing Marco Rubio of his involvement in immigration reform efforts in 2013, Abbott declined to wade in to the battle over the so-called "Gang of Eight" legislation.
“I’ve never looked at the bill. I’m not a member of Congress, and I don’t follow bills and amendments to bills and all that kind of stuff," Abbott said. "All I know is what Ted Cruz has said, what he believes, what he would accomplish, and it’s right along the lines of what needs to be done.”
While Abbott is stepping up his involvement in the presidential race, he said nothing has changed in regard to his promise to stay out of contests at the state level. Reminded he has endorsed Eva Guzman, a justice on the Supreme Court of Texas with a challenger, Abbott said, "You're wasting your time if you're trying to read anything into it." Asked specifically if he thought Speaker Joe Straus, who faces two challengers Tuesday, should be re-elected, Abbott repeated his original vow.
"I'm not getting involved in any primary whatsoever," the governor said. "The only thing I'm focused on is the presidential race."
In the interview, Abbott also addressed his predecessor, Rick Perry, whose 2013 indictment on abuse-of-power charges was dismissed Wednesday by Texas' highest criminal court. Abbott said the decision affirmed Perry's argument that the case was politically motivated, calling for a closer look at how to prevent "character assassination" in the legal system.
"It’s unfortunate for Gov. Perry that he had to go through this experience, and we need to find a way that a person’s life and character cannot be destroyed by a district attorney that asserts these legal challenges in ways that destroy someone’s life because even though Gov. Perry has been exonerated, it’s like that old line ... ‘What office do I go to apply to get my character back?’ And you can’t," Abbott said.
"Sure, absolutely," the governor said.