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Cruz spoke to voters in Manhattan, months after decrying "New York values"

He is looking to win some delegates in the April primary

(CNN) —  

Investment bankers and oil painters walked up marble stairs, gazed at portraits of Nancy Reagan and George Washington, and were ushered to ballroom seats beneath crystal chandeliers.

It was not unlike any other lunchtime reception in midtown Manhattan’s private clubs – just this one gathered to hear a presidential candidate wage a crusade against their very way of life.

Ted Cruz began to make his best pitch on Wednesday to a culture that he has gone out of his way to criticize in a state that is now surprisingly important to Cruz’s political survival. It is an at-times awkward try to soothe tensions with a lifestyle that exploded with controversy when Cruz accused his main presidential rival, New Yorker Donald Trump, of embodying “New York values” such as supporting gay marriage and abortion and obsessing over money and the media.

Now, the New York primary on April 19 is emerging as a looming opportunity to keep Trump below the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination and the Texas senator is trying to electrify the small Republican base here.

Not all, even at his events, are endeared.

“I have very good values,” said Perri Zweifler, a retired woman here at 3 West Club, who came along with her adult son and called the remark “insulting.”

His event in the shadow of Trump Tower – and next door to restaurants with names like the “Yankees Steakhouse” – didn’t look markedly different from those held in Iowa barns or Pizza Ranches.

Cruz still drops “y’all’s.” He still exits to “Only in America.” And his crowd still reacts far more excitedly to mentions of conservative Sen. Mike Lee and radio talker Mark Levin than more moderate presidential aspirants like Lindsey Graham or Jeb Bush.

Cruz outlined a campaign waged aggressively and explicitly against the New York culture that he so detests, hoping that they are frustrated with their own state’s politics as he is.

“So the next time you think of all the disastrous policies that have been foisted on the people of New York, you can thank Donald Trump for bankrolling those efforts,” Cruz said, name-checking New York politicians that Trump has financially backed such as Rep. Charlie Rangel and former Rep. Anthony Weiner. “I think we have an inherent advantage because the people of New York know Donald Trump.”

A shout-out to working men and women with “callouses on their hands” did not seem to resonate with the New Yorkers in Cruz’s crowd. But his pledge to “stand unequivocally” with Israel – usually not a stirring moment in Cruz’s stump speech – drew a standing ovation.

He also argued that security concerns had to come ahead of civil liberties concerns expressed by some liberal Democrats.

“I arrive in New York, and Mayor de Blasio promptly held a press conference to denounce me – so I must be doing something right,” Cruz said to applause. “If Mayor de Blasio ever holds a press conference and says ‘I agree with Ted,’ that will be the instant I hang it all up and realize I’ve gone terribly, terribly wrong.”

Ted Cruz’s newest enemy: NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio

Cruz’s campaign does not expect to win New York, where Trump has been a media fixture for decades. But most of the delegates on April 19 will be awarded by congressional district, and Cruz hopes to not let the Manhattan tycoon run away with 95 delegates that push him considerably closer to reaching the magic number of 1,237.

Cruz’s aides are still gathering data on the most effective places to strike, but they are planning to surgically target individual congressional districts – especially those in more rural patches of New York, or places with very few Republicans – where he can dig into Trump’s lead. Trump, for his part, is happy to remind voters of Cruz’s previous comments, which were broadcast widely in the New York media, often in a negative fashion.

“Remember ‘New York Values’?” Trump said at a press conference in Washington on Monday. “You think Ted Cruz is going to win New York? I don’t think so.”

Polling has shown Trump with a large lead, and he is expected to have much of the state’s GOP establishment behind him, led by prominent Republican powerbroker Carl Paladino. And while Cruz did try to begin to make inroads by inviting county GOP chairs and elected officials to meet with him Tuesday, some Republicans in the state argue he is getting a late start.

Todd Rouse, a Republican activist near Syracuse, said that when Republicans gathered in Buffalo for the Republican Party’s state convention last month, people were surprised that the Cruz campaign chose not to send a representative. Trump and John Kasich’s campaign did.

Cruz told reporters when asked by CNN that he was “not worried at all” about his rhetoric harming him in New York. He suggested that his comment was meant to judge the state’s Democratic leaders, not its voters.

Despite Cruz’s harsh rhetoric for the state’s political elite, he and his wife Heidi, who works for Goldman Sachs, have long operated with ease in some of the country’s most exclusive social circles – a facility highlighted when an introducer read through Cruz’s resume at length and told him before the crowd that she had just spoken about him with one of his famous Harvard Law School professors, Alan Dershowitz. (“He told me you were a very good student,” she added.)

And those supporters on Wednesday downplayed the residual impact of Cruz’s New York joust. J.P. Pearlman, a 25-year-old who walked over to hear Cruz from his investment banking job during his lunch break, said he didn’t take it personally.

“That comment was a bit off the cuff, and I think I know what he means when he said that,” Pearlman said.

Pearlman and other admirers of Cruz recognize that he has an uphill climb against a native son.

“I think he’s going to kill Cruz,” Conrad Hasl, also a banker, said of Trump, given his local appeal. “If five people vote for Cruz in New York City, that’d be amazing.”