POLITICS

Ted Talks In New Hampshire: Can Ted Cruz Cajole His Way Into 2016 Contention?

03/29/2015 07:31 pm ET | Updated Mar 29, 2015
Darren McCollester via Getty Images

NASHUA, N.H. -- When he's out on the campaign trail in public view, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) likes his hair gel extra-shiny, his wife and two adorable daughters close to his side, and a microphone attached to his body at all times.

The former college debate national champion knows a little something about presentation, and image-crafting was entwined in every movement he made during his first swing through New Hampshire as a newly minted presidential candidate on Friday and Saturday.

At times, he risked laying it on a little too thick.

During his first appearance at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Merrimack, for instance, Cruz was already decked out in a headset microphone as he waded through a crowd of supporters who wanted to talk to him one-on-one for a few moments before he took the stage.

New Hampshire voters are used to seeing presidential candidates try to ingratiate themselves with locals by wearing plaid shirts, sweater vests and all other manner of hokey adornments, but the effect of Cruz's decision to glad-hand with headgear made him look more like a telemarketer than a White House aspirant.

At no point during his two-day swing through the first-in-the-nation primary state did Cruz ever appear in public without a microphone attached to his person.

But as strange as it looked, for Cruz, maintaining the ability to electronically amplify his voice at any moment is a crutch befitting his biggest asset as a candidate: his mouth.

In what is expected to be an extremely crowded field of GOP contenders who will each bring to the 2016 table a set of unique strengths, Cruz can outtalk them all.

The man knows how to give a speech, but how he ultimately fares in his uphill campaign climb remains an open question, as Cruz is perhaps the biggest wildcard, equally capable of flaming out or catching fire.

He is a first-term senator with a negligible national organization, a shaky relationship with the party establishment that has determined each Republican nominee for the past half-century and a scant record of legislative achievement.

In short, the current Republican candidate of the moment appears in some ways to be poised to fade from relevance in the presidential equation faster than you can say "Michele Bachmann."

But anyone inclined to underestimate his chances would do well to remember Cruz's long-shot 2012 Senate bid that ended in a victory that shocked just about everyone but Cruz himself.

As a Princeton and Harvard-educated lawyer, he is savvy enough to know that being the smartest guy in the room isn't necessarily the ticket to the top tier.

For Cruz, it's all about playing the right tune to the right crowd at the right time.

In watching him wow three entirely different Republican constituencies in New Hampshire over the weekend, it wasn't hard to imagine a scenario in which Cruz could use strong performances in the upcoming primary debates as a springboard to victory in Iowa and an ultimate emergence as the conservative alternative to whichever 2016 contender earns the GOP establishment's backing.

His first stop in Merrimack on Friday provided a chance to thrive in his most natural environment: among a sea of mad-as-hell, hardcore conservative activists who were eager to be fed as many slabs of red meat as Cruz could pack into one speech.

Setting the tone for the event was Jack Kimball -- the intensely controversial former New Hampshire GOP chairman, who has since mortified many of the Granite State Republicans he once presided over with his call to arrest President Barack Obama and penchant for spreading bizarre conspiracy theories online, including his belief that the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris were faked.

Even some of Kimball's like-minded conservatives had heard enough, as he tested the upper levels of the public-address system's range while introducing Cruz.

"Jack, you've got a microphone," one man in the crowd snickered to no one in particular. "You don't need to yell."

After Kimball relinquished the stage to the candidate, there was no such pushback. Cruz didn't need to shout to rev up these true believers. (He was, after all, already wearing his microphone.)

As he paced the stage with the deliberative gait of an evangelist preaching to the faithful, the familiar lines poured from Cruz's mouth as effortlessly as if he were placing a series of phone calls asking potential customers for "just a moment of your time" or imploring them to "act now, before it's too late!"

But the success rate of Cruz's pitch was far better than any 1-800 number salesman could ever aspire to achieve.

"I am convinced, come 2017, a new president in the White House is going to sign legislation repealing every word of Obamacare," Cruz said, inspiring a man near the front of the crowd to extend his arms and reach for the heavens.

Hallelujah!

Later that night, however, Cruz struck an entirely different tone as he addressed a conference of college-age conservatives who had gathered in this Boston exurb for a weekend of political confabbing, free food and adolescent flirting conducted in ill-fitting business attire.

Instinctively, Cruz picked up on the dynamic that this was an entirely different kind of crowd than the "Don't Tread On Me" T-shirt-wearing and concealed-carry set that had greeted him in Merrimack, and he adjusted his style and substance accordingly.

He joked about the disparaging portrayal of him in the HBO vampire series "True Blood," took a stab at a goofy Jay Leno impression and boasted about how he had co-opted Obama's winning 2008 campaign strategy to find success in his own Senate bid.

And then he took a broadside at a particularly abhorrent foe: old people.

"I think every young person, after you go in to vote, oughta walk out and punch your parents in the nose," Cruz said. "I mean, it is as if your parents went out and took a credit card in your name [and] said, 'Savannah, we're going to Vegas. We're going to party it up, we're having a great time, and guess what? You get to pay the bill!'"

On Saturday morning, Cruz headed to the tony seacoast region where he delivered remarks to the navy blue sport coat and khaki pants-wearing set, timed to begin at the civilized brunching hour of 11 a.m.

His lapel microphone already in place, Cruz took to the room adjoining the golf course, where he trumpeted his ideas for a flat tax, won a standing ovation in affirming his support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and earned some mimosa-infused chortles for his excoriation of the political press.

"Wow," Cruz said in response to the crowd's rousing greeting. "With that kind of reception, it's almost like you all don't read The New York Times!"

What Cruz didn't mention was that, just a few minutes earlier, he had been standing in a different area of the same country club, ignoring an aide's entreaties to stay on schedule, as he answered just one more question from a New York Times reporter.

As downright affable as his relationship with the political press who trailed him all weekend was, nothing goes better with scrambled eggs at a well-heeled Republican brunch than a heaping side of media bashing, and Cruz was not shy about indulging.

Still, no one knows better than the candidate himself that if he has any legitimate hope of rising out of the single digits in the polls and becoming a significant factor in the race, he will need the media -- and not just the conservative media -- to help him get his message out.

Cruz is even adjusting his schedule to ensure he has all the time he needs to talk to reporters on the trail at every turn.

"I want to have a good relationship with the press -- it doesn't pay not to -- and Ted wants to have good relations with the press," said Cruz's spokesman, Rick Tyler. "One of the discussions we had today, frankly, is we need to build more time for the movements in going from one place to another because he's just not going to move. He's just going to take every question."

If Cruz fails to catch on, it won't be for a lack of energy.

Unlike other candidates who tend to become visibly exhausted after several hours of give-and-take, Cruz never once seemed to tire during his first foray onto the 2016 campaign trail.

This is, after all, a man who once stood for 21 hours straight on the Senate floor to deliver the filibuster that helped turn him into a national conservative icon.

Soon, the presidential stage that this born showman has had to himself for the past week will be crowded with a dozen or so other serious 2016 contenders.

And each of them will move quickly to challenge Cruz on whether his gift for gab is what the Republican Party is craving eight years after another charismatic first-term senator ascended to the White House on the back of his speechmaking prowess.

But so far, at least, Ted Cruz has ridden his rhetorical prowess to a strong start.

"It's so scary because I just feel like the whole country's going in a way where we're forgetting all of our rights," said Claire Lester, who said that she could "definitely" see herself voting for Cruz after hearing him speak on Saturday. "I feel like we're the patriots that have to revolt to switch it around."

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