Ted Cruz on Saturday used his first speech since dropping out of the presidential race not to endorse Donald Trump or urge Republican unity behind him, but to maintain that core conservatives can save America. Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, countered by deploying a top surrogate who did his best to woo skeptical Texas conservatives.
Addressing thousands of cheering delegates at the Texas Republican Convention, many of whom climbed to their feet and waved red-white-and-blue "Thank You Ted!" signs, Cruz repeated some of the same promises from his defunct White House campaign, like abolishing the IRS.
"People ask, 'Are you disappointed?' Of course you're disappointed," Cruz said. But he also insisted he remains optimistic about American conservatism.
"That movement is far more important than any one campaign, far more important than one candidate," Cruz said. "We may face some challenges ahead, but I am convinced that movement, the men and women gathered here, will be the remnant, will be the core of the movement pulling this country back from the abyss."
Cruz this week filed for re-election to the Senate in 2018 and, as Texas' top political star, should face little credible opposition in the Republican primary. A Democrat, meanwhile, hasn't won statewide office in Texas since 1994.
Cruz said of his Senate return, "each and every day I will continue to get up and fight for you." He said a top priority will be opposing the Obama administration's directive requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms of their chosen gender, saying, "We have entered the world of politically correct lunacy."
Cruz hasn't endorsed Trump and didn't mention him Saturday. Once friendly, the pair clashed bitterly just before the Texan suspended his campaign, with Cruz even calling the businessman a liar and serial philanderer.
After Cruz spoke, many delegates left the cavernous hall inside the Dallas convention center — failing to stay for Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who spoke on Trump's behalf. Texas Sen. John Cornyn saw Trump in Washington on Thursday and invited him to the Texas convention. Cornyn said Trump considered it briefly, but that his campaign staffers said he had other commitments.
Instead there was Sessions, a proponent of strict immigration policies whose work in the Senate Cruz often praised on the campaign trail before Sessions endorsed Trump. Sessions admiringly called Cruz "our almost-presumptive Republican presidential nominee."
"We've fought together in the past and we'll fight together in the future," Sessions said of Cruz. He then gave a rambling speech where the loudest applause came when he outlined Trump's immigration policy.
"He's going to end the illegality and he's going to build a wall to ensure that," Sessions said. "Isn't that conservative?"
He added: "Let's put this tough primary behind us. It was tough, no doubt about it. But we can, and will, unite."
Cruz supporters far outnumbered those backing Trump at the convention. Still, many said they will vote Republican in November.
"It is a hold-your-nose situation, but I know I would still vote against Hillary Clinton any day," said Alan Arvello, referring to the Democratic presidential front-runner. The 46-year-old physician assistant from Amarillo was holding a "Thank You Ted" sign.
"We don't know if he's a true conservative, but we do know Hillary's a true liberal," Arvello's son, Aaron, a 23-year-old arborist, added of Trump.
Cruz won Texas' primary in March but not by enough to secure all the state's 155 delegates, with Trump capturing 48.
A convention committee selected Cruz's father, Rafael, as No. 5 on the list of Texas delegates heading to the National Republican Convention in Cleveland, with only Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, state Attorney General Ken Paxton and former Gov. Rick Perry ahead of him.
But that was done more for logistical than political reasons, since top delegates to Cleveland are bound by party rules to support the top vote-getter in the state's primary, Cruz. Lower numbered ones will be committed to Trump, regardless of their personal preferences.
Keeping the elder Cruz among bound Trump supporters at the national GOP convention "would have been embarrassing," said Eric Opiela, the Texas Republican Party's assistant general counsel.