U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is visiting South Florida to help the Republican Party raise money — and at the same time audition for donors and activists who could prove valuable if he runs for president.

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Anita Mitchell, chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, dismissed criticism of Republicans embracing Cruz from U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

“As far as the chairman of the DNC, Miss Wasserman Schultz, she’s a great one to talk about extremism, by the way. So I have one thing to say to her: Game on, lady.”

Margi Helschien, who lives west of Boca Raton and serves as president of the Independent Conservative Action Network, said Cruz isn’t in the mainstream for South Florida Republicans, who don’t tend to be as conservative as Republicans elsewhere in the state.

“Ted Cruz is a wonderful political figure. Smart guy. Knows his stuff,” she said. “He is exciting. He is enthusiastic.”

She said the Sunshine State is important for anyone thinking of running for president.

“Florida’s an important state. That’s one of the major states you need to win,” she said. “They need to know everybody. They need people to know them. And they need to try to win this state.”

Many attendees liked what they heard.

“I loved him,” said John Parke, of Delray Beach.

Tom Thayer, of Boca Raton, termed Cruz “fantastic. A lot of great ideas. A lot of enthusiasm.”

He and his wife Vicky said they like the idea of a Cruz candidacy for president.

“I loved him. I thought he was terrific. Everything he said I agreed with,” she said.

Charlie Crist

Though the governor’s race comes up this fall, with Cruz as speaker – and warm up speeches by conservative firebrand Dr. Ben Carson and reality TV host and real estate developer Donald Trump – the evening dealt mostly with national issues and the presidency.

Gov. Rick Scott wasn’t present (nor was Attorney General Pam Bondi). But other top Republicans took up his cause, and criticized former Gov. Charlie Crist, a former Republican seeking the Democratic nomination to run for his old job.

Carlos Lopez-Cantera, on his 16th day as lieutenant governor, repeated an oft-told joke about Crist. “A Republican, an independent and a Democrat walk into a bar. And the bartender says, ‘Hey Charlie.’”

And Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam declared “we cannot allow Florida to succumb to the temptation of cotton candy populism that Charlie Crist represents.”

The speech