They shouted, “We love you!” and “Love you, Teddy!” A crowd of several dozen coalesced around Mr. Cruz as he emerged from the main ballroom after delivering a speech on fighting for liberty.
“He’s the best,” gushed a young woman in the crowd.
“This man is fighting for us,” said another woman, Virginia Hewett, 67, a corporate trainer living in Florida.
The sentiment challenged unflinching devotion to Mr. Trump that was on display at the annual gathering of conservative activists.
The conference hosted by the American Conservative Union resembled a Trump convention. Attendees donned masks emblazon with “Trump: I’ll be back.” Some wore cowboy hats inscribed with the message “Trump country.”
Still, the emotional outpouring for Mr. Cruz this year topped the gawking and selfie-seeking encountered so far by other political heavyweights strolling through the convention center.
Others eyeing 2024, such as Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, did the same.
“Most Republicans I want to send a pair of brass balls or a truss because they either lack a backbone or don’t have any balls,” Ms. Hewett said. “When everyone else was wimping out, [Mr. Cruz] was the one who was standing up. Everyone says he was standing up for Trump but he was standing up for the people — for us.”
• Seth McLaughlin reported from Washington.
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