CLEVELAND (AP) -- A defiant Sen. Ted Cruz declared Thursday he's no "servile puppy dog" as he faced a torrent of GOP criticism over his refusal to endorse Donald Trump on the Republican National Convention stage.
Irate convention delegates predicted Cruz had committed political suicide by accepting a prime-time speaking slot Wednesday only to urge Republicans to "vote your conscience," not vote for the nominee. Although the Texas senator had not been expected to offer an effusive endorsement of his primary foe, many GOP delegates had hoped and expected to hear some expression of support as they struggle to unite their party to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton this fall.
Instead they got the opposite Wednesday night as Cruz's defiance ripped apart their showcase of GOP unity moments before vice presidential nominee Mike Pence took the stage. The result was a moment of high drama in the convention hall, as delegates booed Cruz angrily and waved their arms, and some even rushed the stage. Only Trump's sudden appearance in his family's box, dispensing smiles and waves, quieted the simmering crowd.
Trump himself declared Cruz's move "no big deal!" in a late-night Twitter post Wednesday. But on Thursday the Texan met anger and denunciations from many sides and was even heckled at a breakfast meeting of his own Texas delegation where a vocal minority of the large crowd was furious.
"Get over it, this is politics!" one man yelled, while another told Cruz he could unite the party by saying just a few words in support of Trump and "You need to do it now!" A third told Cruz to "Stop spinning it!"
Cruz refused and sought to portray his stance as a matter of principle. But he also made clear it was intensely personal after a brutal primary campaign where Trump dismissed him as "Lyin' Ted," mocked Cruz's wife's looks and linked Cruz's father to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
"I'm not going to get into criticizing or attacking Donald Trump, but I'll give you this response: I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father," Cruz said, adding that those attacks had undone his pledge to back the eventual GOP nominee.
"That pledge was not a blanket commitment that, if you go and slander and attack Heidi, that I'm going to nonetheless come like a servile puppy dog and say, 'thank you very much for maligning my wife and my father,'" Cruz said.
The Texan argued that the "politically easy option" would be to back the nominee no matter who it might be, but insisted: "This is not a game, it is not politics. Right and wrong matters."
Yet for Cruz politics is at the heart of the matter as he eyes another run for president in 2020. The last man standing after Trump defeated the rest of this year's large and experienced GOP primary field, Cruz's future political viability may now rise or fall on whether his decision to deny Trump at the billionaire's own coronation looks good or bad four years from now.
In the immediate aftermath critics were easier to find than supporters. Cruz is deeply unpopular with many fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill, after leading a politically disastrous government shutdown in 2013 and clashing with party leadership in the Senate, and defenders were few among elected officials.
"He's very self-absorbed, he's a narcissist and the rest of America now knows the Ted Cruz we know and I think he's ended his political career," said Rep. Chris Collins of New York, a leading Trump backer.
Cruz delegate Eric Burlison, a Missouri House member from Springfield, said Cruz would have been better off sending a videotaped message as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio did.
"People that probably four years from now or eight years from now would have looked at him as being the next guy, he lost them. They will never forget that and they will never forgive him for that," Burlison said.
Former House Speaker John Boehner, a longtime critic who has likened Cruz to the devil in the past, opined: "Lucifer is back," his spokesman said over Twitter.
Cruz's campaign manager told reporters that some members of the Texas delegation, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, spoke to Cruz Wednesday and unsuccessfully urged the senator to publicly offer Trump his support.
"He went back on his word to support the nominee. ... Your word, in politics, has to be your bond. He's politically dead," said B.J. Van Gundy, a longtime GOP activist in Georgia.
Associated Press writer David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri contributed.