LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Ted Cruz gives a rousing speech. The former college debate champion can energize a crowd of 10,000 evangelicals at a basketball arena as easily as he can captivate a few dozen inside a New Hampshire cafeteria. He's proven in the Senate he's got the stamina to go on longer than anyone else to make his point.
As a messenger, he's got fire. It's the message that's the question for Cruz.
Kicking off his 2016 campaign for president, the first-term senator sought not to build a coalition of voters, but instead rally into action those who share his deeply conservative beliefs. It's an approach that's gotten him nowhere in the Senate and puts added pressure on his rhetorical gifts to win over those who don't share his uncompromising ideology.
Cruz opened his official campaign Monday with a wee-hours tweet followed by his speech at Liberty University, a leading Christian college, where he declared: "The power of the American people, when we rise up and stand for liberty, knows no bounds." He was the first major White House hopeful to enter the race, with many more to follow.
At Liberty, he demonstrated how he won college debating titles while a student at Princeton University and court cases at the Supreme Court as the state of Texas' top lawyer.
Without a script or notes, he walked around a theater-in-the-round stage during a half-hour speech that gave no quarter on his conservativism. He's adept, too, at engaging smaller crowds. During his recent visit to New Hampshire, he spent almost an hour working the room before his remarks. He promised a middle-schooler he would schedule an interview for the school paper, posed for lots of pictures and signed one woman's bright pink cowboy boots that she said reminded her of his home state of Texas.
"Whatever it takes," Cruz said with a smile.
Cruz has become an effective spokesman for the small-government, less-tax tea party movement, but not one who has advanced an agenda in Congress, where he is a divisive figure even within his own party. He says he would disband the IRS, scrap President Barack Obama's health care law, seek to overturn abortion rights. All face steep climbs for the next president; Cruz makes such pledges as though it would be a cakewalk.
"From the dawn of this country, at every stage, America has enjoyed God's providential blessing over and over again when we faced impossible odds, the American people rose to the challenge," Cruz said. "Compared to that, repealing Obamacare and abolishing the IRS ain't all that tough."
In the Senate, Cruz has found few natural allies. His fellow Texan, Sen. John Cornyn, declined to endorse him on Monday. Sen. John McCain of Arizona once called Cruz one of the "wacko birds" of the Senate. And after Cruz spoke in the Senate floor for 21 hours and 19 minutes straight in September 2013, in a quixotic attempt to starve the health care law of money, many colleagues considered it a stunt.
The ensuing partial government shutdown hurt the GOP's standing with the public.
As well, the fiery rhetoric can come across as too harsh for many moderate, deep-pocketed and establishment-minded Republicans. They still make up the GOP majority, for all the influence that conservative activists wield early in the primary contests and beyond.
Cruz shows little interest in calibrating his views for moderates at this early stage of his White House run. For all the talk about the Republican Party being a big-tent coalition with many divergent corners, Cruz seems to be focused on convincing those who don't share his views that they are wrong. His outreach remains on the right, extending to Christian conservatives from his tea party roots.
He's hoping those blocs may be enough for him to cobble together the primary votes making him the nominee.
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