MIAMI — Sen. Ted Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, rarely mentions that he is Hispanic. But he and others are doing so here.
"The first Hispanic president of the United States," is how Cruz's campaign chair for Miami-Dade County, Manny Roman, introduced the senator from Texas, who took the stage to cheers of "Ted! Ted! Ted!"
"Y'all know how to make a Cuban feel welcome," Cruz said, also showcasing his Texas upbringing.
Cruz and his rival, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are both the sons of Cuban immigrants. Both men speak movingly about the stories of their parents — Cruz's father, Rafael, came to the United States from Cuba in the 1950s and worked as a dishwasher while teaching English and ultimately putting himself through the University of Texas. Rubio's parents, Mario and Oriales, also came to the United States in the 1950s; Mario worked as a bartender and Oriales a maid. Rubio spent most of his life in predominantly Cuban West Miami.
But with a few exceptions — Cruz has spoken about playing dominoes and how he is the rare Cuban who dislikes avocados — Cruz rarely refers to himself as Hispanic. But ahead of Tuesday's primary here, Cruz is showing his roots and attempting to gain the support of Hispanic voters here on Rubio's home turf.
"Obviously my family story is an integral part of who I am. It is a shared and unifying aspect in the Hispanic community, the immigrant experience, coming to America with nothing," Cruz said Wednesday.
Cruz's campaign has said that his message of conservatism and economic opportunity is one that resonates with Hispanic voters — and all voters, and that he doesn't need to go out of his way to make the sell.
"He doesn’t need to pander. That’s not what Ted Cruz does. I think the Hispanic community respects that," Roman said in an interview. Cruz became the first Hispanic candidate to win a presidential nominating contest with his Feb. 1 victory in the Iowa caucuses.
But Roman said the campaign is making a concerted effort to woo conservative Hispanic voters who made up Rubio's base of support here. It is putting surrogates on Spanish language television and has sent Rafael Cruz, who speaks fluent Spanish, to campaign and meet with pastors in the state.
"We’re doing a concentrated, focused effort in making sure we reach the Hispanic community," Roman said. Cruz also said he hopes to do well.
"I hope to do very, very well in the Hispanic community," Cruz said, noting that he won the majority of the Hispanic vote during his 2012 Senate campaign in Texas. Here in Florida, there are about 511,000 registered Republican Hispanics, according to Daniel A. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. About half of them live in Miami-Dade County.
And Cruz himself is now making his Cuban roots more overt. He mentioned how his father left "my abuelo and abuela, back in Cuba" and first set foot on American soil in Key West. Rafael Cruz took a Greyhound bus to Austin, where he attended the University of Texas.
“Now that’s the American experience, it’s who we are, it’s the Hispanic experience, but it’s also, much more broadly, it’s who we are as Americans. It ties us together," Cruz said.
"What does it say about our nation, that the sons of two Cuban immigrants who came penniless to this country, one a bartender and a maid, and the other, his dad, a dishwasher, that right now their sons would be among the handful still running for president? It takes your breath away, the opportunity this nation offers," he added.
Unlike Rubio, Cruz doesn't speak Spanish well. Cruz was asked here by a reporter if he wanted to say something in Spanish and he walked away without speaking.
A number of Cuban Americans came to see Cruz here Wednesday. Clara Chiong, 75, said he wants Cruz to showcase his roots more.
"That will help him with the Cuban vote," Chiong, who came to the United States in 1961, said. "Cruz is not as well-known to the Cuban community in Miami as Rubio is."
Chiong said she once supported Rubio and voted for him for Senate — her daughter went to middle and high school with the Florida senator — but is voting for Cruz. She doesn't like that Rubio supported a comprehensive immigration reform bill that allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain citizenship.
"All the things with his credit cards, that the establishment wants to buy him, which I think is very bad," she said of why she's not supporting Rubio. "I think he's changed." (Between 2005 and 2009, Rubio used his state Republican Party-issued corporate card for some personal expenses and he paid American Express for those charges.)
Mercy Dominguez, a 51-year-old court reporter from Miami, was born in Cuba but raised in the United States. She plans to vote for Cruz.
"He was raised in Texas, and that's why the Cuban is not so instilled in him," Dominguez said of Cruz. "That his father is Cuban is irrelevant."
Rubio, she said, is a "nice guy, but I think Cruz is better qualified."
Joe Rosario, a 49-year-old from North Miami Beach who is volunteering for Cruz's campaign, said "80 percent of the Hispanics I know" who are Republican are fed up with the party and want a change. Rosario said he respects Rubio but thinks Cruz is the better choice. Rosario is of Puerto Rican descent.
"They're close in age," he said of Cruz, who is 45, and Rubio, who is 44. "But you can see the difference between a man and a boy. Cruz is a man."
Chiong said she wants to see one thing.
"I'd like to see a Cuban in the White House," she said.