Ted Cruz Really, Really Wants to Win New Hampshire

4 minute read

Want to know just how badly Ted Cruz wants to win New Hampshire’s primary? He quoted John McCain at a town hall-style meeting here on Tuesday.

A day after winning Iowa’s caucuses, Cruz was on the ground in New Hampshire doing his best to set aside his rivalry with McCain, a beloved figure in this state that has the next-up nominating contests next Tuesday. It was a subtle nod to New Hampshire tradition, but one where Cruz chose not to long linger.

Cruz and McCain have sustained a not-at-all-subtle feud in the Senate after the 2012 election. Cruz says McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, embodies the type of moderate Republican who has doomed the party to lose the White House in recent elections. McCain once called Cruz a “wacko bird” and finds Cruz’s approach to governing maddening. Indeed, he is hardly alone.

But McCain, who won New Hampshire’s 2000 and 2008 presidential primaries, remains a grandfatherly figure in the state and has a cache for having campaigned here hard and personally. Even Democrats show respect for McCain’s attention to New Hampshire and its highly prized first-in-the-nation primary.

“You know, John McCain has a great phrase for Russia. He says Russia is essentially a gas station with a country attached,” Cruz said in a non-denominational Christian church, before flying off to South Carolina for another campaign event. Cruz’s point: “Putin is a petro-tyrant.”

On its own, cribbing a good one-liner from his sworn Senate rival would draw a quizzical look from those who know the history. But when added to Cruz’s sharpening edges, it’s clear Cruz has considered what it will take to win in New Hampshire and he’s ready to try.

Marco Rubio is a squish on immigration, Cruz says, keeping his focus there. Rubio helped write and guide to passage through the Senate a bipartisan immigration bill, but it fell apart in the House when Cruz told House conservatives that they’d be voting for “amnesty.” The had tighter controls on the border and a difficult route for those in the country illegally. Conservatives, led by Cruz, said President Obama couldn’t be trusted to enforce the law, and scuttled it rather than deal with the problem.

Rubio has since disavowed the plan as too ambitious in the current political climate.

But Cruz is upping the ante on immigration. In his new telling, Rubio was trying to bring potentially Islamic State-sympathizing refugees from Syria. “The bill failed to secure the border,” Cruz said. “The bill expanded President Barack Obama’s ability to bring Syrian refugees to this country without mandating any meaningful background checks.”

The bill would have broadened the definition of refugees who have nowhere else to go, but the President has long had his own power to address refugees. Current refugees undergo a 12- to 18-month background check, and Syrians take 24 months. No part of the Rubio-led immigration bill was specific to Syrians, nor did it weaken background checks.

Little matter. Cruz is on top, and he’s hoping to stay there. It will be a challenge, especially in New Hampshire, to be sure.

Cruz also took a swipe at Donald Trump, the one-time frontrunner whose support faltered in Iowa and left him in second place. Asked specifically about Trump’s bullying comments about Americans with disabilities, Cruz chose his words carefully.

“I’m the big believer you convey a lot about your character in how you treat others. Everyone knows how to kiss up,” Cruz said. “How do you treat the clerk at the convenience store? How do you treat the cab driver? How do you treat the people you don’t have to be nice to?”

Cruz also used immigration to ding Trump, who was not leading the opposition to Rubio’s bipartisan efforts. “As a presidential candidate, he has discovered that illegal immigration is a good issue,” Cruz said. But when the immigration bill seems heading towards passage, Trump was silent.

Cruz said it was easy for Trump to be nice to him when he was trailing in the polls. Now, having a win in Iowa and gaining nationally, Cruz expects that won’t be as gentle. After all, six weeks ago, Trump and Cruz were besties. “Now,” Cruz deadpanned, “I’m an anchor baby.”

But it is the issue of immigration that Cruz wants to use to drag Rubio and Trump down.

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Write to Philip Elliott / Windham, N.H. at philip.elliott@time.com