WASHINGTON – Coming soon to a campaign stop near you – a kinder, gentler Ted Cruz.
The senator's presidential campaign is embarking on a concerted effort to highlight a more affable version of the fiery Texas Republican. He's started working the late night talk show circuit, a new forum for the senator, and his wife, Heidi, has also been appearing more often on national TV to present him as a likable figure.
Cruz's two young daughters, who have already provided occasional comic relief to their dad's campaign, will be joining the senator on the road frequently. And his team is looking for more opportunities to put Cruz in fun, laid-back settings, like when he joined kids for a matzo-making lesson in New York.
"It's important for us to show him in more of a lighthearted venue," said Alice Stewart, Cruz's communications director. She conceded that voters want more than just a candidate they agree with on policy, adding, "It's not a secret that voters will vote for someone they like."
The lengths Cruz has to go in boosting his standing with voters were starkly evident in a focus group of Republican women this week in Pittsburgh. When the women were asked what they knew about Cruz, several described him as "untrustworthy" or a "liar." GOP front-runner Donald Trump has spent weeks assailing Cruz as "Lyin' Ted."
And when focus group participants were asked what animal best described Cruz, some said a "mosquito" or a "hornet."
"You just want to bat it away," one woman said. The session was organized by Public Opinion Strategies and Purple Strategies as part of the "Walmart Moms" series that focuses on female voters.
Cruz allies say the senator is warmer than he's given credit for, particularly in private moments. Rep. Reid Ribble, a Wisconsin Republican who backs Cruz, recalled seeing the candidate playing tag with his daughters backstage before a campaign stop earlier this month.
"I remember thinking to myself as I watched him play with his kids, 'That's the Cruz America needs to see,'" Ribble said. "The more people can see the humanity of any candidate, the better."
The campaign's emphasis on Cruz's persona comes as the senator fights for any possible advantage in his Republican primary fight with Trump. Cruz has no mathematical chance of winning the nomination through the regular voting and is counting entirely on overtaking Trump at a contested convention.
Cruz's campaign has demonstrated impressive deftness in working the convention delegate process. But many party insiders view Cruz with skepticism — his reputation in Washington is that of a self-serving opportunist — and his standing with the public is only a bit better.
A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that only 26 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Cruz, while 59 percent were unfavorable. Perhaps the only solace for Cruz is that Trump's numbers are even worse — 69 percent of Americans view him unfavorably as do 46 percent of Republicans.
Cruz's campaign knows that in order to boost his numbers, he needs to reach out to Americans beyond those who listen to conservative talk radio and know the senator from his fights with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, including his 21-hour filibuster against President Barack Obama's health care law that resulted in a government shutdown.
In that effort, Cruz's campaign sees Obama as someone to emulate. The president has consistently had high personal favorability ratings and mastered the art of courting Americans outside the political arena.
Stewart from the Cruz campaign said Obama "may not have checked all the boxes for a candidate in terms of record and accomplishments, but voters liked him." Cruz this week even parroted Obama's famous "yes we can" campaign slogan, adopting "yes we will" as his promise to fulfill his campaign pledges.
Before the New York primary, Cruz made the rounds of the late-night talk show circuit for the first time, appearing on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and the "Tonight" show.
Cruz is also doing more public events with his wife and daughters.
During a CNN town-hall interview, Cruz talked about a recent class picnic where 8-year-old Caroline "got to dress up daddy" in a pink boa and "big goofy-looking underwear."
"It was on a videotape the whole time," Caroline continued.
"Uh oh," Cruz said, trying to smile.
"And now it's a class video that they're sending out to all the parents," she said as her mom and the audience burst into laughter.
Cruz quickly tried to change the subject.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.
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