Republican president hopeful Ted Cruz, making his first Maryland of the primary campaign, urged supporters in Towson to help him deny Donald Trump the delegates he needs to secure the GOP nomination before the party convention in July.
"Maryland is a battleground," Cruz told hundreds of supporters at an American Legion Post. "Maryland is going to have an outsized voice as the nation is looking to Maryland to decide do we nominate Donald Trump and hand the election to Hillary Clinton, or do we unite behind the Cruz campaign?"
With its late presidential primary, Maryland often finds the nominees have already been decided by the time its voters go to the polls. But competitive contests for both the Democratic and Republican nominations mean candidates have been visiting the state in advance of the April 26 primary.
On the Republican side, Ohio Gov. John Kasich campaigned in Maryland last week, and Trump is said to be planning a rally some time before the primary.
Among the Democrats, Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have visited the state this month, and rival Bernie Sanders visited Baltimore in December.
Cruz, a conservative senator from Texas, is currently battling Kasich for second place among the Republicans. Trump leads in most recent polls by a wide margin.
But with the prospect that no candidate will reach the convention with a majority of delegates, they're now engaged in a secondary battle: Trying to get sympathetic delegates elected to improve their chances in a floor fight.
Cruz supporters crammed into the hall at American Legion Post 22 on York Road Monday, eager for a glimpse of the candidate. As they waited for him to appear, a playlist of driving country songs looped over a sound system and the distillation of Cruz's message — jobs, freedom, security — flashed on television screens.
The crowd was a mix of Cruz supporters of long standing, voters who joined his cause after their chosen candidates dropped out of the race, and the merely curious. The crowd was made up of a wide mix of men, women, young people and old people. Almost everyone was white.
Supporters praised the consistency of his views.
"He's not there to tell people what they want to hear," said Nick Moats, 18. He said he skipped school for the day and drove from St. Mary's County to be at the rally.
That consistency has not always endeared Cruz to his Republican colleagues, some of whom have been unusually public in expressing their distaste for him. But now he's in the position of pitching himself as the candidate who can unite different parts of the GOP.
"Our object more than anything else is unity," Cruz said. "Bringing together, standing together united among Republicans."
To illustrate the point, Cruz was introduced by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, one of five former presidential hopefuls who have now endorsed him. Fiorina said the depth of opposition Cruz faced was a sign of his willingness to stand up to the powerful.
"I know that Ted Cruz is a fearless fighter because he has the scars and the enemies to prove it," she said.
Michael Hill, 24, said he was a longtime Cruz supporter — he likes his "consistent, conservative" politics. He said he thinks the senator can pull the party together, even if he acnkowledged it was a little strange to say it out loud.
"It's sort of something a lot of people didn't see coming," said Hill, who works in a music store.
Cruz gave no indication that he would change his approach to unify the party. Instead, Cruz sought to draw a contrast between himself and Trump, who he painted as a deal maker who had been too close to Democrats in the past. With a Supreme Court seat vacant, Cruz said, it was no time to compromise.
"I will not compromise away your religious liberty," he said. "And I will not compromise away your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms."
Much of the rally had a lively feel. A Cruz punch line about Hillary Clinton being in jail drew howls of laughter. Any mention of Trump's name triggered boos from the crowd.
So did a reminder that it was tax filing deadline day, a feature of the calendar Cruz says he'd do away with. He said he would institute a flat tax so simple that taxpayers could file their returns on a postcard. He says he'd abolish the IRS.
There were quiet moments as well. When Cruz talked about the mountains of student debt borne by young people, a few people uttered "yups" to themselves.
Cruz received his strongest applause for the policy he said he'd adopt toward Israel.
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"As president I will not be neutral," he said. "America will stand unapologetically with the nation of Israel."
After the rally was over, Cruz and Fiorina stuck around to sign autographs and take pictures with supporters.
Cruz activist Nick Yanakas, a student at Salisbury University, said the rally was well worth the long drive.
"I like that he has integrity, that he's honest with his positions," said Yanakas.
He wore a vest that played on Cruz's supposed outsider status. It featured a picture of a heavily tattooed Cruz with an unlit cigarette hanging out of his mouth under the words "Blacklisted & loving it."