Cruz takes aim at New Hampshire voters for upcoming tour

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Ted Cruz brought his pro-gun, anti-establishment message to a receptive audience at a packed pasta restaurant in New Hampshire on Sunday, the beginning of a five-day swing the Texas senator hopes will help him eat into rival Donald Trump's advantage in the state.

Cruz is trying to bring religious and social conservatives together with pro-gun libertarians for a stronger-than-expected finish in New Hampshire's primary on Feb. 9. His 17-stop tour attracted hundreds of people at the kickoff event Sunday night in Milford, known as "the granite town in the Granite State" for its proliferation of quarries.

Cruz tried to position himself as the most sincere conservative in the race, building on his recent attacks against Trump as only a recent convert to the Republican Party.

"Everyone says they're a conservative," Cruz said. "Don't listen to what I say, or they say. Ignore what any of us say on the campaign trail. Look to our actions." Cruz cast himself as the most willing to fight with both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.

Cruz received a standing ovation and occasional shouts of "Amen!"

"He represents us — tea party America," said Mike Walker, a police officer from nearby New Ipswich, New Hampshire. He said protecting gun rights was his priority issue, along with securing the nation's borders. Walker also likes that Cruz has frequently butted heads with the Republican party leadership.

Cruz's trademark anti-establishment pitch, filled with quotes from scripture and support from evangelical leaders, has thus far served him well among conservatives in Iowa, where he's locked in a narrow race with Trump ahead of the Feb. 1 caucuses that lead off the state-by-state nominating contests. But Cruz hopes a strong finish there would spark momentum in New Hampshire a week later — and beyond.

Cruz held a pro-gun event at a New Hampshire shooting range last week and hit that issue hard in his pitch to Milford voters Sunday night. Cruz highlighted his support for the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment which guarantees the right to bear arms just two minutes into his stump speech, eliciting cheers from the hundreds who came to see him.

The first-term senator's backers say his message can consolidate enough conservative support to do well in New Hampshire, which tends to favor more moderate Republicans. As Trump surges ahead of his rivals in state polls, the rest of the Republican field is scrambling to grab whatever support remains.

While Cruz had a quick stopover in New Hampshire last week, more than two months have passed since his last visit. The senator instead has poured his time and resources into states like Iowa, where he is surging against Trump. But with his poll numbers rising in New Hampshire, Cruz is banking on the bus tour to give him a boost.

Cruz drew cheers Sunday, just as he does in Iowa, when he talked about plans to repeal President Obama's health care law, abolish the tax-collecting Internal Revenue Service and Education Department, build a wall along the Mexican border paid for by Trump, and take action against cities that won't cooperate with immigration investigators.

Cruz also recited Scripture and exhorted voters to pray for him and the country at least one minute a day before voting.

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Ronayne reported from Manchester, New Hampshire.

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