He amped up the criticism of President Barack Obama. He dialed down the my-way-or-the-highway zeal that often infuriates his fellow Republicans. And he left Florida political activists pumped up and buzzing over whether he'll run for president.
"Ted Cruz is a wonderful political figure. Smart guy. Knows his stuff," said Margi Helschien, who lives west of Boca Raton and is president of the Independent Conservative Action Network. "He is exciting."
Tom and Vicky Thayer, of Boca Raton, are ready to consider him as a serious presidential possibility after listening to a 34-minute, late evening speech Friday from the Texas senator, who quickly rose to prominence following his 2012 election by becoming a thorn in the side of Democrats — and Republican leaders.
"I loved him. I thought he was terrific. Everything he said I agreed with," she said. Her husband termed Cruz "fantastic."
For his part, the senator avoided discussion of what's widely seen as his presidential ambitions — fueled by travel to states that are critical to winning the Republican presidential nomination. Last week's Florida trip served as a de facto audition for the big political donors who can help finance a campaign and the grass roots activists who are critical to winning the state's 29 electoral votes.
He gave Republicans plenty to savor at the Palm Beach County Lincoln Day dinner, declaring that "these are not ordinary times in politics" and criticizing what he said was an "abuse of power" by the Obama administration and a "pattern of lawlessness" by the president.
"Liberty has never been more under assault than it is today," he said. "It seems like President Obama is trying to go down the Bill of Rights and violate each one of them one at a time."
His special target was the president's signature initiative, the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Last year, in what Cruz called "the battle to stop the train wreck, the disaster that is Obamacare," Cruz was a prime architect of the strategy that resulted in a partial shutdown of the federal government.
The shutdown damaged the party's political standing and angered many establishment, mainstream Republicans. Cruz said it was successful because it alerted the public to shortcomings of the law that they wouldn't otherwise have learned about.
Cruz said the failure of Congress to pass gun restrictions in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre — something polling showed was favored by the public — was a victory that stopped Obama's attempt to "go after the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens."
Florida Democrats were happy that the state's Republicans showcased Cruz over two days. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said her party would benefit when Republicans "continue to make extreme choices, particularly in who they highlight as leaders of their party."
Anita Mitchell, chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, dismissed the criticism. "She's a great one to talk about extremism, by the way. So I have one thing to say to her: Game on, lady."
Lynn University political scientist Robert Watson said Florida Republicans showcasing Cruz could play into the Democrats' hands by "paint[ing] the party as more conservative than they would want to be painted."
Public opinion polling shows Florida voters have mixed views of Cruz.
A Quinnipiac University Poll released Jan. 31 found just 9 percent of Florida Republicans would vote for him in a presidential primary. Cruz did best with conservative, born again Evangelicals, and tea party members. He did poorly with moderates, people who aren't born again, and non-tea partiers.
Asked if he'd make a good president, 23 percent of voters said yes and 44 percent said no. Notably, 19 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of conservatives and 56 percent of moderates — a pivotal group needed to win a general election and the state's 29 electoral votes — said he wouldn't make a good president.
Cruz didn't get on stage until after 10 p.m. for his Palm Beach speech, which he delivered without notes as he crisscrossed the stage, eschewing the lectern. He kept the sellout crowd of more than 600 engaged, not just with his policy prescriptions, but a constant stream of one-liners, most of which had a political point.
For example, he took a jab at National Security Agency phone call monitoring with this line: "Please leave your cellphones on. I want to make sure President Obama hears every word I have to say tonight."
Referring to his 21-hour talk-a-thon on the Senate floor last year, he said it was "almost as long as it takes to sign up on the Obamacare website."
And, he noted the ornate ballroom at the Donald Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago Club, site of the event, quipping that "it is so great to be welcomed into Donald's modest living room."
See a gallery of pictures of Cruz, Trump and other political players at the Republican dinner at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
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