After New York drubbing, Ted Cruz shifts his message to attract moderate GOP voters

Ted Cruz visits the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach while campaigning in New York.
(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

Despite Ted Cruz’s best effort to make inroads in the Northeast – rolling matzoh at a Jewish bakery while his wife, Heidi, extolled the smell of the Big Apple – his dismal performance so far shows the difficulty ahead as the Texas senator tries to swat back Donald Trump’s ability to claim the Republican nomination.

Polls show Trump leading in Pennsylvania, one of several mid-Atlantic states voting Tuesday. So Cruz has embarked on a two-pronged strategy to win over more moderate-minded Republicans who bristle at the bullish businessman, while also solidifying his dominance among the far-right evangelical and tea party forces that propelled him in earlier state contests.

The dual track was on display this week when instead of leveling broadsides at Trump during an election-night speech in Philadelphia, Cruz delivered a presidential-style “Yes, we will” message of unified GOP optimism. That was followed Wednesday by a visit to Hershey, Pa., where he was welcomed by stay-at-home moms and a constitutional enthusiast in a tri-cornered hat.

“Pennsylvania certainly could get a little more competitive, but it’s going to be tough for him,” said G. Terry Madonna, a professor at Franklin and Marshall College and director of a poll released Thursday. “What hurts him is, you’re in a state with very different demographics than the states he’s won.”

Cruz has maintained his second-place standing during the long campaign in large part by winning primaries in Southern, Midwestern and Western states, where his brand of shut-down-the-government conservatism resonates with Republican voters.

But he was flattened in New York, where exit polls showed just 1 in 4 GOP voters considered themselves “very conservative,” and 6 in 10 said they felt “concerned” or “scared” of his policies. Cruz appeared unable to overcome his disparaging “New York values” quip, even after his eldest daughter called the state her favorite, in part because it meant a visit to the American Girl doll store. Four in 10 New York Republicans said they wouldn’t vote for him if he were the party’s nominee.

Pivoting to Pennsylvania, Cruz stepped into his ostrich cowboy boots to press his case Wednesday, fighting against the perception that his campaign is not geared to compete in the mid-Atlantic states that are now essential.

“Let me tell you what Donald and the media want to convince everyone: that Pennsylvania is a suburb of Manhattan,” Cruz told a friendly crowd at an antique car museum Wednesday morning, a trio of vintage silver buses behind him. “I’ve got a lot more faith in the people of Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvania, Maryland and other mid-Atlantic states voting Tuesday are made up of diverse electorates – intense urban centers of often more moderate voters in Philadelphia, Baltimore, but also rolling farmlands and socially conservative rural enclaves.

The New York-baiting earned Cruz a good response here in Hershey, not far from the famous chocolate factory and its theme park, which is surrounded by the amber fields and rolling hills of farm country.

“I would hope that New York is a blip,” said Kathleen Skobieranda, a 53-year-old homemaker who attended Cruz’s event in Philadelphia and is deciding between him and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Kathleen Skobieranda with her daughter at a Ted Cruz rally in Philadelphia.
Kathleen Skobieranda with her daughter at a Ted Cruz rally in Philadelphia. (Noah Bierman / Los Angeles Times)

The problems that tanked Cruz in New York, however, run deeper than his inartful criticism of New Yorkers and his Texas twang.

Cruz’s strong point has been the delegate race - the shadow campaign of the Republican nominating process that has allowed him to scoop up delegates even after Trump won the state's primary.

But he may start running into stiffer competition. Trump has retooled his operation under the leadership of elections guru Paul J. Manafort, and it may begin to show dividends.

In Pennsylvania, the Trump team is mounting a serious effort to court delegates after Manafort met with allies on Capitol Hill who urged the campaign to step up its game.

And in nearby Delaware, another state where voters go to the polls Tuesday, the state GOP is bracing for a Trump challenge at its state convention this month, when the party will approve its winner-take-all slate of 16 delegates, campaign operatives said. It would mark one of the first times the Trump team has gone on serious offense.

But Lowman Henry, the Pennsylvania state chairman for Cruz, promised aggressive campaigns to elect Cruz supporters as delegates Tuesday. Under Pennsylvania's rules, voters elect delegates in each congressional district at the same time they vote for a candidate. But the winning delegates are not bound to vote for the candidates who win the popular vote.

“The delegate race is what matters,” said Henry, who believes the state will warm to Cruz as an alternative to Trump. “Pennsylvanians like that practical conservative approach. He can get past shouting and slogans on hats to practical results.”

Cruz has stayed on Trump’s heels by positioning himself as the conservative alternative -- selling his outsider status, his deeply conservative interpretation of the Constitution, and his evangelical values.

Brenda Oren at a Ted Cruz event in Hershey, Pa.
Brenda Oren at a Ted Cruz event in Hershey, Pa. (Noah Bierman / Los Angeles Times)

But on Tuesday night he also presented himself as another kind of Trump alternative – a soaring optimist, paying homage to John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama and the moon landing.

“Not ‘Yes, we can,’” Cruz said from the election-night stage. “Yes, we will.”

Many supporters believe Cruz can shift his emphasis away from a take-no-prisoners style that has defined him so far. But they also caution against changing it up too much, since Cruz’s strength is based on a sense among conservatives that he is sincere and unyielding.

Sam Goykhman, a Philadelphia supporter who attended the Tuesday event, said it might help if Cruz altered his tone a bit as he courts suburban Northeastern voters. “But if he goes away from his main objective, everyone will say he changed his views,” Goykhman said.

Cruz walked onstage Wednesday morning with the Alan Jackson country song “Where I Come From” blasting on the amplifiers, and he continued to talk about religious liberty during his speech.

Even though religious conservatives are fewer here, several pockets of central Pennsylvania, centered around Lancaster, are deeply religious, and Cruz is expected to continue campaigning here.

“Hopefully, there are enough to put him over,” said Brenda Oren, a 56-year-old mother from Harrisburg who came to Wednesday’s rally.

John Rentschler at a Ted Cruz rally in Hershey, Pa.
John Rentschler at a Ted Cruz rally in Hershey, Pa. (Noah Bierman / Los Angeles Times)

Others suggest Cruz’s best hopes in attracting voters here may lie with tea party supporters like John Rentschler, 32, who was dressed in colonial garb at Wednesday’s rally and cares most about a strict fealty to a constitutional interpretation that values limited government.

“Ted Cruz is the only one who seems to revere it,” Rentschler said.

Bob Bozzuto, executive director of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, urged the candidates to be themselves – and do the hard work of winning votes.

“The best advice is to leave no stone unturned with any candidate, and with any delegate,” he said.

So Cruz can keep the cowboy boots?

Sure, said Henry, Cruz's state chairman. But referring to the famed football rivalry between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, he added: “I would advise him not to wear a Cowboys jersey here. That could get him into trouble in either end of the state.”

Bierman reported from Hershey and Mascaro from Washington.

For the latest from Congress and the 2016 campaign, follow @LisaMascaro.