HARLINGEN, Texas (AP) — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz on Thursday made just his second visit to the U.S.-Mexico border since taking office, saying Texans in the area care mostly about the same issues as residents of any other part of the state.
Rather than call for increased border security or strongly denouncing illegal immigration — as many conservative politicians do when stumping in South Texas — the tea party favorite gave his usual campaign-style speech. That meant decrying the White House's economic policies and the nation's new health care law before about 500 people at a Harlingen chamber of commerce-sponsored event in the mess hall of local military academy.
Cruz later headed up the border to Laredo.
Frequently mentioned as a potential 2016 White House contender, Cruz already has hit the early presidential voting circuit hard, with four trips to Iowa, three to South Carolina and a third visit to New Hampshire set for this month. But along his home state's 1,200-mile border with Mexico, a fast-growing, largely Democratic enclave, he has hardly been seen in the nearly 16 months since taking office.
Cruz said he visited the region eight times during the last three years — though all but one of those trips came while he was still campaigning before being elected in 2012.
"In South Texas, what folks want is they want economic growth and jobs, they want greater opportunity to achieve the American dream," Cruz said. "Actually what the men and women of South Texas want is exactly the same things Texans want in the Panhandle and East Texas and West Texas."
Spokeswoman Catherine Frazier also noted that Cruz has racked up serious miles traversing all of Texas as senator, visiting 40-plus cities. Still, his travel schedule indicates that solidifying the conservative base far from home has taken priority over courting voters in predominantly Hispanic South Texas.
Another possible presidential hopeful — Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — angered many of his tea party supporters when he helped broker sweeping, bipartisan immigration legislation that passed the Senate but stalled in the House.
Cruz has criticized that proposal and said Congress should delay tackling immigration reform until 2015 because, he figures, the Republicans will have taken back the Senate by then. Meanwhile, he made good on a campaign promise by offering a 2013 amendment to triple the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents and quadruple the equipment used along the border, including drones and helicopters. That proposal didn't make it to a Senate floor vote, however.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party and a native of the border town of Mission, said Cruz has spent most of his time "being a spokesman for the American tea party and campaigning for president."
"His only concern is making a name for himself and promoting national right wing values," Hinojosa said.
But Bob Dunkin, a retired Harlingen banker, said Thursday that even though Cruz hasn't yet declared his presidential candidacy, he's ready to vote for him.
"We like to see more people in government down," Dunkin said, "because we often are put off in a corner and they don't realize what the real world is about."