HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Sen. Ted Cruz said the turnout and raucous reception he received Sunday at a pair of campaign rallies in Alabama reminded him of the Iron Bowl.
With Alabama and Auburn yet again predicted to be the cream of the crop in the Southeastern Conference, the Texas Republican's 2016 presidential campaign might want to plan now for a tailgate at the college football classic.
Cruz plans to make his stand during the so-called SEC Primary in March on Super Tuesday. Cruz's campaign has taken to calling that swath of the U.S. "Cruz Country" because of its traditional conservative, evangelical base — his target demographic.
He outlined some of that strategy aboard his campaign bus after a large outdoor rally in sweltering Georgia heat behind Sprayberry's Barbecue in Newnan, Ga., on Aug. 8.
"The RNC changed the primary calendar this year, so that the entire primary is accelerated. You're going to have the first three primaries — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina — and they've always been critically important. They will remain critically important," Cruz said. "But then just two weeks later: boom, we hit Super Tuesday. We hit primaries all across the country, primarily across the South, big states that are expensive to be on media, and it's so fast that any campaign that hasn't done the hard work of building a grass-roots team, putting in place strong leaders, is going to find themselves behind the eight ball because there's not enough time."
The following day, introducing Cruz at a Shelby County GOP event, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said the decision of SEC states to unite behind the March 1 primary date would give the conservative primary electorate in the region the chance to meet and greet candidates up close.
"I think there are some good people in Iowa, OK? But there's nobody in Iowa that's any better than the people in Shelby County, Tuscaloosa County, ... any county in the state of Alabama," Merrill said. "Our people deserve, and they're going to get a right, to meet presidential candidates, just like the one we're going to hear from today."
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., told CQ Roll Call likewise before introducing Cruz at a packed house in Huntsville Sunday evening. An estimated 1,400 people attended that stop in northern Alabama, and it was nearly moved outside because of the turnout.
"The South as most people understand it, which is a culture and a belief system, has not had much of an impact in general elections because we can be relied on to go one direction only," Brooks said. "This time though, it looks like that we're going to have a major say in who the Republican nominee is, and I think that's very important."
"We need to make sure that the Republican nominee is not going to be squishy, is not going to be beholden to special interest groups or powers that be with lots of money, but instead is going to be beholden to the values expressed by our Founding Fathers in the United States Constitution," Brooks said.
Brooks made clear his appearance did not constitute an endorsement, though he considers Cruz an ally. Brooks is one of the known members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus that's been a thorn in the side of GOP leadership.
"There are roughly 20 candidates who are running for president, maybe more than that," Brooks said. "There are a handful of candidates on the Republican side that I think very highly of, any of whom I would be tickled to death if they were our nominee, because I think they would both govern well out of the White House and would win the general election. Ted Cruz is one of the people that I believe has what it takes to get America back on the right track."
At a series of stops during a bus tour that continues for a couple more days through what the campaign has taken to calling "Cruz Country," the Texas Republican has been greeted by enthusiastic crowds exceeding expectations (or capacity).
That was true at the kickoff at a restaurant and bar in suburban Charleston, S.C., on Aug. 7, and it continued through the weekend.
Cruz's real challenge will be consolidating the conservative electorate, and he knows it.
"The Washington establishment's plan is to divide conservatives. They want us splintered. They want a handful of conservatives over here, a handful of evangelicals over here, a handful of libertarians over here, a handful of tea partyers over here," Cruz said aboard his bus in Georgia. "If we're splintered, that's how a moderate, establishment candidate runs right up the middle with 23 [percent], 24 percent of the vote, steals the nomination. And if we do that, we lose. Every time that happens, we lose to the Democrats."
But the early reception has Cruz optimistic.
"What I believe is critical for the conservative movement to come together and unite. It's something I'm working very hard to do, and I'm encouraged because we're seeing every single day more and more signs of conservatives coming together," he said.
The bus tour swung through Atlanta on a to visit to the conservative RedState gathering before heading south to the barbecue spot in Newnan. The news headlines from RedState were dominated by the decision by organizer Erick Erickson to rescind an invitation to businessman and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump in response to disparaging comments Trump made about Fox News host and debate moderator Megyn Kelly.
Sunday in Pelham, Ala., Cruz declined to directly attack Trump, taking an entirely different tack from fellow Senate-based presidential candidate Rand Paul of Kentucky. Cruz would likely benefit should Trump drop his bid for the Republican nomination, provided he doesn't alienate the real estate mogul's base of disenchanted-with-Washington voters.
Cruz said of course he would hope to pick up potential Trump voters.
"It is my hope over the course of this campaign that we earn the support of all of the people that are supporting Donald Trump and every other candidate in this race," Cruz said.
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