Ted Cruz glanced at his black cowboy boots, beneath a silver Texas belt buckle, waiting for the admirers to stop clapping.
His arrival had turned a drop-by at a Houston lumber yard into a virtual campaign rally. At an earlier stop near Austin —at a gun manufacturer that churns out AR-15 rifles — cheering fans crowded next to employees, and one held a sign reading "Ted Cruz rocks!"
The new troublemaker of the U.S. Senate was home again, and savoring nothing short of a victory lap.
In just seven weeks on the job, the insurgent Republican elected with the tea party's backing and bankroll has run afoul of GOP mainstays, prompted Democrats to compare his style to McCarthyism and has voted against nearly everything of significance that came before him.
"My view is simple: Washington is a rough-and-tumble place. If folks want to attack me personally, they're welcome to it," Cruz said during a visit this week to a Houston lumber wholesaler. "Texans elected a senator to go to Washington and speak the truth."
His approach was unusual for a freshman in Washington, and its effectiveness long-term far from certain, but the reaction at home so far is effusive.
Other Texas politicians are celebrating him, and supporters have turned his constituent visits during the congressional recess into revivals. On Twitter, Texas' popular attorney general Greg Abbott, a rumored candidate for governor next year, is among those beaming about the "Cruz Missile."
"He's been a terrific partner," declared the state's senior senator, Republican John Cornyn. "What he's finding is there's a lot of critics in Washington when you try to change the status quo."
As the lone tea party candidate to win a Senate seat in last year's election, the brash 42-year-old Harvard-trained attorney has aimed to become a force the GOP — and Democrats — must deal with. Having beaten a heavily favored establishment candidate in the Texas primary, he's made good on promises to be combative, uncompromising and absolute in his adherence to conservative principles.
His profile as an Cuban-American in a party struggling to appeal to Hispanics, and his pedigree as a top Ivy League debater and former clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist have made him the freshman to watch in Washington.
Yet Cruz's transition from the campaign trail to the Senate has been anything but smooth.
His sharp questioning of Defense Secretary-nominee Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearing — and public challenges to Hagel's integrity— drew a sharp rebuke from Democrats and even a Republican. In pressing for more documents about Hagel's speechmaking in the private sector, Cruz suggested that Hagel, a former Republican senator, had received money from radical sources and possibly was hiding it.
While some Republicans attempted damage control, in Houston this week, Cruz didn't back down.
"The flurry of attacks on me has had their intended effect, which was to shift the conversation away from Chuck Hagel," Cruz said. "Away from his record, away from his refusal to provide financial disclosures, and toward the direct, nasty, personal attacks leveled at me."
Privately, some Republicans expressed surprise that Cruz was barely on the job five minutes before he was saying no to a Cabinet choice. As the latest iteration of "Senator No," he voted against Senate rule changes to modestly curb filibusters, aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy and the Violence Against Women Act.
The attention Cruz received has cast a spotlight on Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the leadership, who hasn't strayed far from Cruz on those votes as he looks ahead to his own re-election in 2014 and the possibility of a challenge from the tea party. The only votes against Sen. John Kerry to be the next secretary of state came from Cruz, Cornyn and Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.
Cornyn called it a "phony construct" that Cruz is pulling him farther to right in an act of political self-preservation.
Not all Republicans have been as comfortable with Cruz. After Cruz's rough treatment of Hagel, Sen. John McCain defended his fellow Republican and Vietnam veteran.
"I just want to make it clear Senator Hagel is an honorable man. He served his country. And no one on this committee at any time should impugn his character or his integrity," McCain said.
At Hagel's confirmation hearing, Cruz employed charts and a scratchy tape from an Al-Jazeera interview with Hagel to challenge the nominee. But it was his guilt-by-association line of questioning that surprised several in the Senate, particularly when Cruz tried to link Hagel to Charles Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia who resigned in March 2009 as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Freeman was undone by congressional criticism over his comments about the Israel government and alleged ties to foreign governments.
Cruz cited media reports that Hagel traveled with Freeman to China. Hagel said he had never been on a trip with Freeman and hadn't spoken with him in years.
Cruz shifted the questioning.
"Is he someone whose judgment you respect?" he asked.
Cruz's questioning raised the specter of 1950s communist-hunter Joe McCarthy, the former Wisconsin senator. He has dismissed those suggestions, and conservatives have come to his defense.
In Texas this week, those who came to meet Cruz at stops like Lodge Lumber and La Rue Tactical in Leander took no issue with his line of questioning.
At the end of a tour at Lodge Lumber, Cruz was met by a supporter who carried in his billfold several fake dollar bills bearing Obama's face, including one that read, "The People's Republic of Hollywood." He said it was the president he wanted Cruz to keep in his sights.
Owner John Lodge said he felt that for the first time in a long while, someone in Washington was on his side.
"He gets with them. He's gotten down to business," Lodge said. "He's the man."
Cassata reported from Washington.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber