NEW YORK Ted Cruz, Donald Trump's closest rival in the Republican race for the White House, named his national security advisers on Thursday, including former staffers of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and members of a think tank that has been called an anti-Muslim "hate group" by a civil rights organization.
Announcing the team in a statement, Cruz said he would reverse what he described as the weakening of the United States in a dangerous world, singling out militant Islamist groups in the Middle East and North Africa as his focus.
Among the most recognizable names on Cruz's list of 23 advisers was Elliott Abrams, who served in both the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations and is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations for Middle Eastern Studies.
The list also included Frank Gaffney, a former official in the Reagan administration, and at least two other members of a think tank Gaffney founded, the Center for Security Policy.
The centre's reports, published on its website, argue that hundreds of thousands of American Muslims support Islamist violence in the United States and that there is a conspiracy to erode the U.S. legal system by elevating sharia, the Islamic legal code.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, that monitors domestic hate groups and other extremists in the United States, has labelled the Center for Security Policy a "hate group" and Gaffney a "notorious Islamophobe."
Gaffney did not respond to a request for comment. The Center for Security Policy responded by pointing to online essays where Gaffney has rejected such criticism, saying his group is a defender of civil liberties against what he calls "Islamic supremacists."
"Do you mention any of the other 22 members of the advisory coalition?" Brian Phillips, a Cruz spokesman, said in an email, declining to respond to questions about the criticisms made against Gaffney and his think tank.
Some of the other advisers Cruz is naming have been critical of anti-Islamic rhetoric. They include Abrams and Mary Habeck, another former adviser to Bush; both have said Islam should not be demonized.
Trump, a 69-year-old billionaire businessman from New York, has surged to the lead of the once-crowded Republican field, drawing support from voters by proposing to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States for fear they might be members of violent Islamist groups. Trump cited research by Gaffney's group in announcing the plan last year.
Cruz, a 45-year-old U.S. senator from Texas, is seeking to keep Trump from winning an outright majority of delegates as states vote for party nominees in the coming months, and to wrest the nomination from him at the party's national convention in Cleveland in July.
Lindsey Graham, a U.S. senator from South Carolina who ended his own bid to become the Republican nominee last December, said on Thursday he is supporting Cruz, a softening of his earlier position where he compared choosing between the two candidates to a choice between being poisoned or strangled.
Cruz has said "everyone understands" Trump's proposed Muslim ban but he does not support it, saying there are millions of Muslims who are not murderous. Instead, he supports stopping refugees from some predominantly Muslim countries from coming to the United States.
Trump warned on Wednesday that there might be riots if he remains the most popular candidate going into the convention but does not emerge as the nominee. His rallies have been marked by angry skirmishes between supporters, protesters and security staff.
House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, the most senior elected U.S. Republican, chastised Trump on Thursday for his riot comments, telling reporters "to even address or hint to violence" is unacceptable.
Democratic politicians and others have condemned Republican candidates' remarks on Islam, saying they foster further division and discrimination.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Thursday found that half of all women in the country have a "very unfavourable" view of Trump.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Jonathan Landay Emily Stephenson and Phil Stewart in Washington and Chris Kahn in New York; Editing by Howard Goller and Jonathan Oatis)
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