MADISONVILLE, Texas (AP) – Bursts of applause had already interrupted Rafael Cruz repeatedly, but the loudest cheer of the night came when the Cuban-born pastor finally made the Barack Obama-Fidel Castro comparison the crowd had been waiting for.
"He acts no different than that bearded guy I left behind in Cuba," the father of firebrand U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz told a packed tea party gathering.
Likening the president to Castro has become something of a trademark for the elder Cruz, and it's actually one of his milder comments. The 74-year-old from suburban Dallas has in the past called for sending Obama "back to Kenya" and accused him of being an "outright Marxist" out to "destroy all concept of God."
His son, the conservative grassroots darling and often-mentioned 2016 presidential prospect, also relishes controversy — thrusting himself into the teeth of last year's government shutdown battle. But public officials, even combative ones, are usually wary of loose-cannon family members as too politically dangerous.
Not Cruz. His father is a highly visible face of his political operation, someone who can talk directly to his conservative base and delight them with bombshells that the senator himself can't drop. And the father could be a key factor in his son's political future.
In comments to the Associated Press, Ted Cruz and his staff acknowledged Rafael's place as an occasional political surrogate when asked about more than $16,700 in travel expenses and mileage reimbursement his Senate campaign paid the elder Cruz in 2012 and through December of last year. Cruz and his office, however, have otherwise attempted to side-step some of Rafael's most explosive comments, maintaining in the past that he doesn't speak for his son and was taken out of context or joking.
The elder Cruz insists he isn't worried about the possible political implications of what he says.
"I have a burden for this country and I feel that we cannot sit silent," he said in an interview as he shook nearly every hand in a crowd of 300-plus following his speech in Madisonville, a tiny town known as Texas' mushroom capital because of a popular local festival.
He's also unapologetic: "It's time we stop being politically correct and start being biblically correct."
Bespectacled and bald except for wispy patches of gray along the sides of his head, Cruz has two false teeth and a booming voice and ferocious onstage presence that makes him seem taller and more physically imposing than he actually is. He heads what Ted Cruz's office describes as a "one-man" religious shop known as Purifying Ministries — but it's not affiliated with the better-known group founded by gospel televangelist Benny Hinn.
His main job, though, is crisscrossing Texas, making appearances that mix religion and politics. He helped his son pull an upset victory in the Republican U.S. Senate primary in 2012, made a barnstorming trip with him to Iowa, where the presidential nominating process begins, and still regularly introduces him at home-state speaking engagements.
Still, some wonder how Rafael Cruz would fit in the atmosphere of a national campaign Cruz may one day mount. In 2008, then-candidate Obama had to distance himself from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, because of Wright's past sermons featuring anti-America rants.
Though Ted may agree with his father's message, "it's the way he put it," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University, referring to Rafael's ridicule. "The problem is, if you want to get into the mainstream and it's not just catering to your base, these things are the kiss of death."
Asked if he'd ever suggest that his father cool it, Ted Cruz responded in an email only, "I love my Dad, and I'm proud to be his son."
Rafael Cruz fled Cuba in 1957 after being jailed under dictator Fulgencio Batista. He arrived in America with $100 sowed in his underwear and worked his way through the University of Texas as a dishwasher. He says he thought of Castro as Cuba's savior until the state started seizing private property.
It's a story Ted Cruz supporters know by heart — both men repeat it at nearly all public appearances.
"He's the real thing. He's not just a front. He believes what he says," said Henry Churchwell, a retiree who heads the Madison County Tea Party.
In the United States, Rafael Cruz said, he became concerned in the 1970s that "the government was starting to impose socialism," and was delighted when his son went to Princeton and Harvard and earned a law degree, saying the schools needed stronger conservative voices.
The elder Cruz told the Madisonville crowd that the death panels that "everybody maligned" when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin spoke out about them have now begun under the White House's signature health care law. If Republicans don't "retake the Senate in 2014, I don't know if we have a country in 2016," he said.
When he meets with preachers, Rafael encourages them to endorse conservative candidates from the pulpit — in defiance of federal bans on nonprofits engaging in political campaigning.
"I lost my freedom once," he said of leaving Cuba for good "and I'm not going to lose it again. I'd rather die trying."