Ted Cruz Aims to Wrap Up Evangelical Support as he Launches White House Bid at Liberty University

Sen. Ted Cruz spoke earlier this month at the International Association of Firefighters Legislative Conference and Presidential Forum in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)
Sen. Ted Cruz spoke earlier this month at the International Association of Firefighters Legislative Conference and Presidential Forum in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

Sen. Ted Cruz will become the first major candidate to declare a run for president Monday, staking a claim to evangelical support with an announcement at the world’s largest Christian university.

It will be an uphill fight for the 44-year-old Texan, one of the most charismatic, brilliant, energetic, untamed and polarizing figures in the Republican Party.

If elected, he would be the nation’s first Hispanic president, the first tea partier, the second straight to leap from the Senate without finishing a term, and the first born in Canada. To get there, he’ll need to win a wide-open scramble against more than a dozen Republican rivals, many of them far better known, organized and funded, and less divisive.

Two senior Cruz advisers confirmed Sunday that he will use an appearance at Liberty University to declare his candidacy, skipping the “exploratory” phase often favored by politicians in both parties.

The school in southwest Virginia, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, is highly regarded by religious conservatives, who play an outsized role in two of the first three Republican contests of 2016.

“It’s a clear signal, not even a dog whistle, that that is a voting bloc that he thinks he can do well with,” said Oran Smith, head of the Palmetto Family Council, a Christian conservative group in Columbia, S.C. “He has an evangelical vibe about him … that will probably appeal to a lot of people.”

But the group is also eager to back a winner, he added.

“The question would be with Cruz, does he have enough to get to 270 electoral votes? And a lot of people — evangelicals included — are more and more sophisticated about that number, and winning. That’s what we’re going to have to find out from him,” Smith said.

Star of the right

Rivals underestimate Cruz at their peril. He upended the Texas GOP three years ago by toppling the establishment’s pick for the U.S. Senate nomination. He’s a national champion debater, star graduate of Harvard Law School, and skilled Supreme Court litigator.

His oratorical skills and willingness to defy party leaders on Obamacare, immigration and foreign policy have made him a star on the conservative speaking circuit.

But aggressive advocacy doesn’t make someone look presidential. Many Republicans, rank-and-file and leaders alike, fear a Cruz candidacy would appeal to such a small share of the electorate that it could lead to an across-the-board drubbing in 2016.

Rivals, such as fellow Texan Rick Perry, have also been hard at work urging voters to send a polished chief executive to the White House next year. They point to President Barack Obama as evidence of what can go wrong when a president takes office without enough seasoning. Cruz has less experience in electoral office than even Obama did when he became president.

So Cruz will need to ensure that he’s not seen mainly as a protest candidate.

“People have to feel comfortable with him,” said David Yepsen, a longtime expert on Iowa politics and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “None of that has anything to do with the nuances of his position on immigration and whether he wants to build a [border] wall higher than Mike Huckabee.”

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Dallas Morning News

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