1. Florida Politics

Ted Cruz, the other Cuban-American running for president

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, walks down a hallway after attending a vote to avert a government shutdown, on Capitol Hill on Sept. 30 in Washington, D.C. The Senate voted in favor of a funding bill that would avert a government shutdown and fund federal agencies through December 11.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, walks down a hallway after attending a vote to avert a government shutdown, on Capitol Hill on Sept. 30 in Washington, D.C. The Senate voted in favor of a funding bill that would avert a government shutdown and fund federal agencies through December 11. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Published Oct. 2, 2015

Ted Cruz could have been a Miami cubanito.

His father, Rafael Bienvenido Cruz, desperate to flee Cuba after his youthful guerrilla activities landed him in jail, applied to the University of Texas, Louisiana State University — and the University of Miami. He chose Texas only because it was the first school to respond.

"If the University of Miami had let him in, I might be a Floridian right now," Ted Cruz told the Miami Herald in an interview.

In any other presidential election, one without a pair of hometown contenders, Miami Republicans might have embraced Cruz as their own. Not his ideology, perhaps — the Texas senator is too hard-core even for some devoted conservatives — but his life story, certainly.

His grandfather toiled in a sugarcane plantation. His father survived jail only to find the rebel he had fought for — Fidel Castro — turned out to be a communist. Cruz clerked for the late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and helped plot a legal strategy for George W. Bush to win the White House during the infamous Florida recount.

Yet the first Cuban-American to ever run for president (he entered the race a few weeks before Marco Rubio) is at best an afterthought in South Florida in a GOP race dominated locally by Rubio and Jeb Bush.

That doesn't mean Cruz has been a stranger.

He received a homecoming of sorts as the keynote speaker at the Miami-Dade Republican Party's annual fundraiser last year. He was in Bal Harbour last month, quietly collecting checks from affluent donors. Through the end of June, Cruz had raised the most campaign cash in Florida — about $317,000 — after Democrat Hillary Clinton, Bush and Rubio.

It's hardly a full-bore Florida campaign operation. But Cruz insists he feels a kinship toward Miami, even though he's the rare Cuban-American without any family here.

"Obviously being the son of a Cuban immigrant, the shared experience of the many Cuban immigrants living in Miami resonates powerfully," he said. "It is an incredible blessing to be the child of someone who fled oppression and came to America seeking freedom — and that is a blessing that the Cuban-American community shares together."

In the Herald interview, he decried President Barack Obama's rapprochement with the island as a way to "once again prop up a viciously anti-American regime." He also said he supports keeping unchanged the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, the federal law that allows Cubans who reach the United States to quickly obtain green cards, a privilege afforded no other foreign nationals.

"The CAA is a recognition of the oppressive communist regime in Cuba that engages in political repression, torture and murder," Cruz said. "I look forward to the day when the Cuban Adjustment Act is no longer necessary because a free Cuba will have returned."

Sometimes, it's easy to forget Cruz is Hispanic at all.

"Maybe sometimes he even forgets," offered U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami who lauds Cruz on foreign policy but disagrees with him on his Senate political tactics.

Cruz's last name sounds like a word in English — "cruise." He describes his Spanish as "lousy." His aggressive immigration stance has led Latino advocates to call him extreme.

But until age 13, Cruz — born Rafael Edward, in a nod to his father and to his mother's Irish-Italian family — went by the Spanish-language nickname Felito. He changed it to Ted to stop getting teased by kids in Houston who said it rhymed with "Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos, and Tostitos," according to his political memoir, A Time for Truth.

"My father was furious with the decision. He viewed it as a rejection of him and his heritage, which was not my intention," Cruz wrote. "For about two years, he refused to utter my new name."

In his book and on the stump, Cruz — much like his "good friend" Rubio — emphasizes his child-of-immigrants success story. He calls his father, a born-again Christian pastor who's perhaps an even more ardent firebrand than his son, a "hero" who threw Molotov cocktails at dictator Fulgencio Batista's government.

At 17, Rafael Cruz was arrested and beaten. Once in Texas, he bashed the Batista regime and promoted rebels led by Castro to any group that would listen — only to have to apologize when he realized life under Castro was no better.

(Last month, when Ted Cruz said in a Republican primary debate that his Secret Service code name should be "Cohiba," after the famed Cuban cigar, he seemed not to know that it's also the brand that was originally made exclusively for Castro and high-ranking government officials.)

A self-described "weird kid" in school, with little talent for sports, Cruz devised a plan to become more popular around the time he adopted the Ted moniker in seventh grade. Before graduating from Harvard Law School, he was a champion debater at Princeton, where he (a Hispanic) and his best friend (a Jamaican) argued against affirmative action.

"He's just a phenomenal brain," said Emilio González, the Miami International Airport director who became friendly with Cruz when González and Cruz's wife, Heidi, worked for the George W. Bush administration. "He's got a mind like a steel trap."

Cruz's strident conservatism, including a 21-hour filibuster two years ago to defund Obamacare, has endeared him to the right-wing base but also alienated him from his Senate GOP colleagues. Last week, they rebuked his effort to shut down the federal government over funding for Planned Parenthood.

"He is pretty much done for and stifled, and it's really because of personal relationships, or lack of personal relationships," rival GOP candidate and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — who endorsed Cruz's Senate candidacy in 2012 — told Fox News Radio.

Cruz launched his presidential campaign before anyone else, with the kind of insurgent outsider message that has propelled Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina to the top of early polls. But Cruz hasn't seen a similar surge, remaining sixth in a field of 15, according to a polling average.

He's nevertheless positioned to stick out the race. He's a prolific fundraiser. He's focused much of his campaign in the South, where a string of red states will hold key Super Tuesday primaries. And he's played nicer than anyone else with Trump, in an effort to appeal to Trump voters if the real-estate tycoon drops out.

That's hardly helped the Texan with Hispanics already upset that Cruz — who was born in Calgary, Canada — opposes birthright citizenship for the children of people living in the U.S. illegally and supports building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cruz struck a more inclusive line in his book, praising former President Bush for understanding "that with immigration, tone matters," and recalling feeling alienated by his own party at a 2008 presidential debate held at the University of Miami where he felt candidates derided Hispanic Republicans as "you people."

But that's not how he's coming across, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum Action Fund, a conservative immigration advocacy group formed by political, business and religious leaders.

"He has a history of trying to be in the right place but ultimately voting against reform — and now doubling down on very extreme positions," Noorani said.

"I'm not sure how you win Florida if you're considered an anti-Hispanic candidate."

Contact Patricia Mazzei at Follow @patriciamazzei.