PETERBOROUGH, New Hampshire – Some politicians run from polarizing endorsements. Ted Cruz seeks them out.
The Texas senator's strength in the 2016 Republican presidential primary is drawn, at least in part, from the backing of high-profile figures from his party's far-right fringe. They are people, like his national co-chairman Iowa Rep. Steve King, who may be popular among the passionate conservatives who usually decide primary contests, but could turn off the swing voters and independents who typically decide general elections.
King is a leading voice on immigration, having compared those who cross the border illegally to drug mules and livestock. Cruz has also embraced endorsements from an evangelical leader who described Hitler as a hunter of Jews sent by God, and B-list entertainers like Phil Robertson, the anti-gay patriarch of the Louisiana duck hunting family featured on the popular cable show "Duck Dynasty."
"When a fellow like me looks at the landscape and sees the depravity, the perversion — redefining marriage and telling us that marriage is not between a man and a woman? Come on Iowa!" Robertson told an adoring crowd in Iowa City, Iowa, the day before last Monday's caucuses. Many in the crowd blew duck hunting whistles as a sign of support.
"How about Phil Robertson. What an extraordinary human being," Cruz declared when taking the stage.
As the campaign shifted this week to New Hampshire, which hosts the nation's second primary contest on Tuesday, Cruz continued to promote King's backing and a fresh group of divisive figures.
"I'm all the way in supporting Ted Cruz for president," King declares in a video played before his Sunday afternoon town hall-style meeting in Peterborough.
Cruz was then introduced by former New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O'Brien, a Republican leader who was essentially deposed because he was too polarizing.
"That's a November conversation," O'Brien said when asked whether he and other hardline conservatives might alienate some voters. "This is a Republican conversation."
Former New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen, who last week endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich, described Cruz backers as "a collection of misfits." He called King "my least favorite member of Congress."
"His rhetoric on immigration has been appalling," Cullen said.
Yet Cruz, who infuses his pitch to voters with readings from scripture and exhortations to "awaken the body of Christ," is betting that aligning himself with the stars of his most conservative wing will ultimately deepen his base of support in the primary election and November's general election alike.
That helps explain why Cruz called Robertson a "joyful, cheerful, unapologetic voice of truth."
Robertson faced a backlash for declaring in 2014 that gays are sinners and that African-Americans were happy under Jim Crow laws.
Cruz also celebrates the backing of Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled as a hate group largely because of its anti-gay positions. The organization remains influential and well-respected among social conservatives.
Cruz also has the backing of Troy Newman, president of the Kansas-based anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, who serves as a board member of the Center for Medical Progress.
The organization was widely praised by conservatives for producing a set of that off investigations by Congress and Republican efforts to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood. Two members of the group were also indicted in Texas last month after a grand jury investigated the Planned Parenthood videos.
And the Cruz campaign recently issued a press release promoting the endorsement of Mike Bickle, founder of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City. Bickle believes acceptance of gay marriage is a sign of the end times and has described Hitler as a hunter of Jews and called Oprah Winfrey's tolerance and popularity a precursor to the apocalypse.
Such endorsements have caused problems for Republican presidential contenders in the past.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry drew criticism in 2011 when he appeared with Bickle. And 2008 GOP nominee Arizona Sen. John McCain renounced his endorsement from televangelist John Hagee, who had made similar comments as Bickle did about Hitler.
Cruz called it "an honor and privilege" to join Hagee for his 75th birthday party last year. And he is unapologetic about his support from such polarizing figures.
"I am proud to stand with men and women of faith," Cruz said in a statement. "Hundreds of pastors, priests, and rabbis all across America have joined our campaign, and they knew a day would come where those who are hostile to religious faith would try to attack and break our unity. They will try to misconstrue our words and use them against us. We are not going to play that game."
And for now at least, the endorsements seem to be doing more harm than good.
"I think Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty is funny. But his son endorsed Donald Trump," said Jenny Menning, 55, of North Sutton, N.H. "So, for me, it's a wash."
Bauer reported from Iowa City, Iowa.
Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sbauerAP and Steve Peoples at: http://twitter.com/sppeoples