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Cruz enters ‘Trump country’ with a handicap

Ted Cruz hits Buffalo Thursday, trailing badly in New York’s pre-primary polls – an interloper in the “Trump country” of Western New York.

Cruz has yet to run local television ads. His evangelical appeal wanes here when compared to the Bible Belt. His local flag-wavers with the biggest names, former Ambassador Anthony Gioia and business executive Russ Gugino, first preferred Marco Rubio.

Yet the third-place Cruz visits New York’s second-largest city in a town-hall event that will bring him network TV time. After his town hall meeting, he will then zip into New York City for a Republican Party dinner and return upstate Friday to pluck at conservative heartstrings in Binghamton, Syracuse and Rochester.

Cruz’s New York State of mind came late. But as the saying goes, better late than never.

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LIVE COVERAGE: Cruz takes turn in Western New York for MSNBC town hall meeting

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“Would I have preferred they come here earlier? You bet,” said Gugino, reasoning that the more people see Cruz and hear his ideas, the more they will like him. Still, it will be difficult for him to come away with a bounty of votes, at least in Western New York.

“Quite frankly, he hasn’t spent the time here,” said Gugino, a longtime GOP operative who is a local spokesman for the Cruz team. “It’s very difficult to reap where you haven’t sown.”

Trump has a huge advantage among Republican voters in Erie, the largest upstate county. Its Republican Committee endorsed him. Rep. Chris Collins was the first member of congress in his corner. Trump devotee Carl Paladino of Buffalo has been banging the drum for months, and Paladino has a following in the party. Running for governor in 2010, he swept the Republican primary vote in Erie County 94 percent to 6 percent.

For Trump’s visit to Buffalo, organizers booked the First Niagara Center, which holds more than 18,000. Cruz’s event Thursday is in a venue that allows about 350.

The Texas senator has problems here and in New York City. While in Iowa, Cruz sneered that the twice-divorced trump “embodies New York values.” Asked to elaborate, Cruz heaped it on by saying “the rest of the country knows what New York values are.”

The Big Apple went sour on Cruz.

“Drop Dead Ted,” roared a headline in the New York Daily News. During a recent Cruz visit, another Daily News headline urged him to take two trains, the F Train and the U Train.

Trump still makes hay about the “values” statement.

“He hates New Yorkers,” the real estate mogul said of Cruz just days ago.

“I think that is called an unforced error,” Gugino lamented of Cruz’s “values” statement. “It was just very unfortunate. I understand what he meant. But I also understand how it was perceived. And I think Donald Trump, to his credit, took that comment and beat Cruz over the head with it.”

The “New York values” line did not hurt Cruz among evangelical Christians, even those in New York.

“As soon as that comment was made, it resonated,” the Rev. Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, told The Buffalo News this month. Cruz will turn to evangelical leaders such as McGuire, head of a 6,400-member Christian advocacy organization, to turn out the voters on Tuesday.

With his early appearances in New York, Cruz positioned himself as the religious candidate in the state’s Republican primary.

He spoke at a Christian school in the Schenectady suburb of Scotia, and he met with about 75 faith leaders at a Bronx restaurant, where he said the New York values he was speaking against were the “values of liberal Democratic politicians.”

Gugino finds plenty of reason for voters to like Cruz. His flat-tax proposal, for one. Cruz would establish one personal income-tax rate, 10 percent, and it wouldn’t touch the first $36,000 of income for a family of four. Critics say it would starve the federal government of revenue.

But Gugino remembers when the Republican luminary Jack Kemp advocated a flat tax and authored the Kemp-Roth tax cut that President Ronald Reagan signed in 1981. Gugino served as a district aide to the late congressman for six years. When Gugino met Cruz weeks ago, he learned that Cruz was a Kemp fan.

Even though Gugino agreed the “New York values’’ statement was a mistake, he said Cruz was indeed talking about “New York City liberal values,” displayed by Democrats like Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The governor, Gugino said, commits $750 million for a solar-panel factory in Buffalo that will create 2,900 jobs but blocks fracking when it requires no public money and will create tens of thousands of jobs. Cruz might speak about this in Buffalo, Gugino said.

Cruz’s town hall meeting will be moderated by Chuck Todd of NBC’s “Meet the Press” and recorded at 11 a.m. in the Katherine Cornell Theater on the University at Buffalo’s North Campus. It’s the theater in which political satirist Mark Russell performed for many years. The meeting will be broadcast at 8 p.m. on MSNBC.

Cruz is then expected to join the other Republican candidates still in the presidential race, Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, at the State Republican Party dinner in the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan. The next day, he is to appear with conservative commentator Sean Hannity in Binghamton, and he has events scheduled in Syracuse and at a gun shop and firing range in Rochester.

email: mspina@buffnews.com

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