LYNCHBURG, Va. — Texas Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzThe Hill's 12:30 Report Cruz predicts another Supreme Court vacancy this year Cruz: Democratic base is 'bat-crap crazy' MORE made a bold play for grassroots and social conservatives on Monday by launching his presidential campaign at Liberty University, the nation’s largest evangelical school.
“I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to reignite the promise of America,” the GOP hopeful proclaimed, pacing the stage and speaking without a teleprompter for a half-hour speech that had the feel and cadence of a megachurch sermon.
“That is why today I am announcing that I’m running for president of the United States,” he said to cheers.
He is the first major candidate to formally launch his presidential campaign, putting pressure on other conservative rivals to possibly move up their time tables.
In announcing first, a surprise move that only leaked this weekend, Cruz is trying to jumpstart his campaign. He’s been stuck in single digits in many early state polls behind others he’d be battling for the conservative mantle, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and retired surgeon Ben Carson.
Republican strategists say the firebrand Texas senator must quickly distinguish himself as the leading conservative alternative to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in next year’s GOP presidential primary.
“He’s feeling pressure in the lane he swims in. That’s the Tea Party lane. He’s under pressure to move up and gain some traction he had lost in the last several months, and thus the early announcement,” said John Weaver, who advised Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns.
“He’s trying to cut off any appeal that [Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul may have in that group as well,” he added. “He’s been off the radar screen as far as picking up support in some of the early states.”
During his impassioned speech to the packed basketball gym of about 10,000 people — mostly students who were required to be there as part of a weekly convocation — he positioned himself as a new wave of GOP leader.
“It is a time for truth, it is a time for liberty. It is a time to reclaim the Constitution of the United States. I am honored to stand with each and every one of you courageous conservatives,” he said.
Cruz packed his remarks with a litany of conservative policy dreams, implying that he is the only candidate rock-ribbed enough to deliver on the base’s long-held goals.
It was no coincidence that his announcement coincided with the fifth anniversary of President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act into law, the implementation of which he famously filibustered for more than 21 hours in 2013, and the 240th anniversary of Patrick Henry’s famous call to, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
He asked the crowd to imagine a simplified tax code that allows Americans to file their taxes on a form no larger than a postcard, a president who “finally secures the borders” and a federal government that “works to defend the sanctity of life” and “protects the right to keep and bear arms.”
A Quinnipiac poll from late February showed Cruz in a pack of likely candidates vying for sixth place in Iowa, host of the first contest of the 2016 primary. The survey found Paul with 13 percent support, in second place behind Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Only 5 percent of respondents favored Cruz.
A poor showing in the Hawkeye State would deal a harsh blow to Cruz’s campaign, a state where he should perform strongly, given the influence of Tea Party activists and values voters in the caucus process.
Steve Deace, a nationally syndicated radio host based in Iowa, told The Hill in October of 2013 that if the caucuses were held then, Cruz “would lap the field.”
He made that comment shortly after Cruz’s filibuster and revolt against the implementation of ObamaCare, resulting in a 16-day government shutdown. Since then, Cruz has been relatively quiet.
Though he criticized GOP leadership’s strategy, he did not marshal House conservatives to block a Department of Homeland Security funding bill last month, despite its failing to reverse Obama’s executive actions granting work permits to nearly 5 million illegal immigrants.
By formally announcing his candidacy ahead of his rivals and choosing a venue within a three-and-a-half-hour drive of Washington, Cruz maximized attention from the national media. His staff began calling reporters on Friday to advertise what they billed as a can’t-miss speech.
Shortly after midnight early Monday morning, he confirmed on Twitter that he was in the race for the White House.
He then released a 30-second introductory video with shots of Iowa cornfields, deserts and beaches, with a narrator intoning, “It is going to take a new generation of courageous conservatives to lead the fight to help make America great again.”
The video was a veiled shot at his more seasoned rivals: Bush, Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R), who carried the Hawkeye State in 2012.
“He has a very narrow window to win this nomination. To do it, he has to become the preeminent candidate for grassroots conservatives and social conservatives. That means he has elbow Huckabee, Carson and Santorum out of the way,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who advised McCain in 2008.
Being first out of the gate allows Cruz to grab the media spotlight, but it also makes him an official target of centrist Republicans who want to derail his campaign and Democrats who want to use his views as ammunition against the GOP as a whole.
Rep. Pete King, a centrist Republican from New York and frequent Cruz critic, dismissed his candidacy.
“Shutting down the federal government and reading Dr. Seuss on the Senate floor are the marks of a carnival barker, not the leader of the free world,” he said, alluding to Cruz’s filibuster.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Tyler said Cruz would scuttle any chance of immigration reform and abolish the Department of Education.
“Just imagine if Ted Cruz had his way: Imagine millions of Americans losing access to quality health care. Imagine another $24 billion government shutdown. Imagine a greater tax burden on the middle class. Imagine tax breaks for the wealthy and powerful corporations,” he said in a statement.