Ted Cruz, wearing a yarmulke and cowboy boots, attempted to win over the hearts and minds of wary New Yorkers with a visit to a mazto factory and a speech to Jewish community leaders in Brooklyn.
Cruz arrived at the Chabad Neshama Center, located in the predominantly Russian and Jewish neighborhood of Brighton Beach, on a rainy Thursday afternoon less than a week after he swept the Wisconsin primary. It quickly became clear, though, that Cruz's recent victory was a distant memory — at least in Brooklyn. There were more reporters at the event than the approximately two dozen actual attendees, most of whom were Jewish families picking up their kids from the Chabad center's day care and trying to ignore the phalanx of photographers outside.
The Texas senator stopped for a few pictures outside the center before walking inside to join roughly a dozen preschoolers busily making the unleavened bread for the upcoming Passover holiday.
"You guys are doing a great job," Cruz told the room of three and four year-olds, most of whom were too busy rolling out the dough to look up.
Cruz noticed that one girl's maztoh had a lot of holes in it, an observation that he pointed out to the room.
"That is a lot of holes," Mr. Cruz said. "It's hole-y matzo. There we go!"
This was Cruz's first experience making the traditional Jewish bread, he said, but added that he's been "privileged to be at many a Seder table."
Cruz, who has made his evangelical Christian faith a central focus of his presidential campaign, tried, uneasily, to join in singing a Passover song called "Dayenu," that translates to "it would have been enough," but only managed it a couple of syllables at a time.
After about twenty minutes, Cruz departed, donning a red yarmulke with his name on it for a speech to Jewish community leaders in Brighton Beach later in the day. Rabbi Moishe Winner, the center's director, told reporters after the event that Cruz "definitely enjoyed the matzo."
Leah Winner, the youth program director said it was "very important" that Cruz had come by. But as for whether Cruz seemed familiar with Jewish traditions?
"Somewhat," she said. "I'm not going to lie. Somewhat."
Despite all his efforts, Cruz's popularity in New York remains about as flat as the matzo he sampled at the Chabad Neshama Center. Donald Trump, Cruz's rival and a native New Yorker, has more than 50 percent support in New York, according to a Monmouth poll released on Monday. The same poll shows Cruz in third place, with just 17 percent, falling behind even Ohio governor John Kasich, who has yet to win a single primary state other than his own.
It's not exactly a surprise that Cruz is trailing in the New York polls. He infuriated many New Yorkers earlier this year when he disparaged "New York values" in an exchange with Trump at a Republican debate. The comment instantly provoked outrage and a vicious defense of the city from both political parties, including Trump.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed Cruz's "New York values" comment during an appearance on CNN Thursday, saying that Cruz was "out of touch" with New York and that he expects that people will "let him know what they think" on primary day.
"Don't come into our home state and put us down," de Blasio said on CNN's At This Hour. "You can't insult the people of New York, who fought their way after the tragedy of 9/11, back to strength and expect people to ignore it."
New Yorkers don't appear to be ignoring it. At Cruz's campaign stop in the Bronx on Wednesday, he was heckled by a protester. "Ted Cruz has no business being in the Bronx," a man yelled, according to the Daily Beast, before police escorted him out.
Cruz clearly took the message to heart. He cancelled an event at a Bronx high school that was scheduled for later the same day after students threatened to walk out in protest of the senator's visit.
"Most of us are immigrants or come from immigrant backgrounds," Destiny Domeneck, 16, told the New York Daily News. "Ted Cruz goes against everything our school stands for."
The Texas senator also sparred with New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton two weeks ago over Cruz's call to "patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods" in the wake of the Brussels terror attacks. De Blasio called those comments "reprehensible," while Bratton said that Cruz "doesn't know the hell what he's talking about."
It's not just Democratic politicians who are calling out Cruz in the Empire State. On Thursday, New York congressman Peter King, who is a Republican, said that "any New Yorker who even thinks of voting for Ted Cruz should have their head examined."
"We're tough, and to have some guy like Ted Cruz with cowboy boots walk around criticizing us...." King added. "Look, I hope he gets the cold shoulder and other things from every New Yorker. Send him back where he belongs."
Despite the chilly welcome Cruz has gotten in New York thus far, there were still some supporters at his matzo event on Thursday. Yoely Weiss lives in Brooklyn and said he didn't care about Cruz's "New York values" snafu. "He loves the Jews and we love him," Weiss remarked simply.
Daniel Kestenbaum was outside the Chabad center holding a Ted Cruz sign. He said he supported Cruz because of the senator's respect for "family values" and opposition to gay marriage. Kestenbaum also brushed off Cruz's "New York values" comment.
"He didn't mean attacking New Yorkers," Kestenbaum said. "Just extreme liberal values."
But even before Cruz's "New York values" comment and public spats with the city's local leaders, New York was never going to be friendly territory for him. Cruz's base is largely made up of evangelical and socially conservative voters who are concentrated in the south and midwest. What's more, New York has literally been plastered with Trump's name for years, while Cruz is still an unfamiliar figure to many.
But Cruz is still desperately campaigning there in order to win at least some of New York's 95 delegates at stake in the April 19 primary. New York is one of the biggest prizes of the 2016 race and one of the last chances Cruz has to stop his rival.
The majority of New York's delegates (81 out of the state's 95 total) will be awarded to the winner of each congressional district, rather than the statewide winner. That could work in Cruz's favor, as he works to peel off as many delegates as he can from Trump. In smaller districts with few Republicans, Cruz won't need to convince many voters to back him to have a shot at picking up delegates.
As New York Republican strategist Susan Del Percio explained to MSNBC, that's why Cruz is campaigning in areas like the Bronx, or Brighton Beach, which is located in the 8th Congressional district and has just 27,000 registered Republicans. Cruz only needs to get the majority in a district — often just the difference of just a few thousands votes in Republican-light areas like Brighton Beach — to win delegates.
Cruz is targeting New York's most conservative pockets of voters, which include the Orthodox Jewish communities like the one he visited in Brighton Beach on Thursday. Although the larger Jewish population skews Democratic, most Orthodox voters hold socially conservative views on issues like abortion and gay marriage, like Cruz.
But despite spending an afternoon baking matzo and speaking to Jewish leaders in a yarmulke, Cruz still faces an uphill battle with the Hasidic and Orthodox voters in New York City. Trump has picked up widespread support in many parts of these isolated communities in the state, where he enjoys far greater name recognition. Trump also has an Orthodox daughter. It remains to be seen if Cruz can make enough inroads to make a dent in Trump's lead in these communities and the state at large before the primary less than two weeks away.
After Cruz's black SUV pulled away from the Chabad center, some lingering supporters handed out the remaining red suede yarlmulkes that were emblazoned with Cruz's logo. Written in Hebrew script was the slogan, "I'm for Teddy."
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @OliviaLBecker
Update: This story has been updated to reflect that fact that Cruz wore a red yarmulke while speaking to Jewish community leaders in Brooklyn, but not while making matzo with young children earlier in the day.