Ted Cruz's strategy heads south to win the 'SEC primary'

Story highlights

  • Sen. Ted Cruz is specifically targeting Southern primary voters who go to the polls March 1
  • Cruz's financial backing makes him one of the 17 candidates who is expected to last a while
  • Cruz is touring those states in a nearly weeklong tour

Birmingham, Alabama (CNN)Ted Cruz is hoping to gain attention by being precisely where his rivals aren't: the South.

In barbeque joints and tea rooms, Cruz is courting the southerners who are likely to play an outsized role in next year's Republican primary. Eight southern states are slated to cast ballots on March 1, a day now monikered the "SEC Primary" after the top-performing college football conference that voters here cheer.
So Cruz and a large group of aides are spending the congressional recess not in New Hampshire -- a more liberal state, for instance, that he has not visited in more than two months -- but on a bus tour in places like Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Van Buren, Arkansas, hoping to quietly build the infrastructure and lavish candidate attention on SEC states while rivals spend time in Iowa.
    "Like the SEC does two-a-days, we're doing two-a-days here right now," said Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe as Cruz greeted a crowd in Huntsville. "Everybody comes in for a Fourth of July event -- a big speech, or some sort of cattle call -- but spending the time, doing these type of events? We don't see that from anybody else."
    Cruz and his allies see a hand-in-glove fit between a Texas tea partier who is the son of an evangelical pastor and a church-going electorate many miles removed from Washington politics. He's known for being a bit of a rebel himself, in his unwillingness to tow the establishment Republican line and aligning himself closely with this primary's most famous D.C. outsider, Donald Trump.
    The Texas senator could reap the benefits of Trump's supporters should the real estate mogul fade, and with the backing of a network of well endowed super PACs that could provide air cover deep into the primary calendar, the campaign sees Cruz as one of the few candidates in the pack of 17 to have staying power. He's even rolling out campaign chairs in states like New Jersey that aren't expected to vote until June, and Cruz himself has wondered aloud about a possible brokered convention.
    The Cruz campaign believes its path to victory rests on a slow, slog-it-out winning of delegates in states that award them proportionally like these. So with at least 356 delegates up for grabs in the South on March 1, the campaign is placing a particularly large emphasis on the SEC primary, especially in Georgia, where the campaign has many financial ties, and Texas, the popular senator's home state.
    That's in contrast to campaigns like Scott Walker, who has set the expectation the he needs to win the Hawkeye State outright, or Chris Christie, who is camping out this summer in New Hampshire and betting his political fortunes on one state's voters.
    No Cruz swing yet epitomizes that post-Iowa mentality like this one, though trips later this summer will take him to far-flung states like Wyoming. Cruz's visit here Sunday was his second recent chance to woo Alabama voters -- he called into a group of Republican activists in Coosa County, a few weeks ago -- and he'll return for a third when he headlines the Lincoln-Reagan dinner in Tuscaloosa in just two weeks.
    "The South is looked down upon as being backwards and behind the times and made fun of," lamented Jodi McDade, the Coosa County Republican chair who hosted the Cruz call and is backing him. "We're now going to stand out and show the rest of the country that we're leaders down here."
    Voters interviewed across Alabama on Sunday said they saw the SEC primary increasingly as a point of regional pride. In a ruby red, relatively poor state, Democrats have little reason to come here.
    Now, some Republicans say they can sense their new power.
    "The media gives us such a beating. Right now we're going through all the brouhaha over the Confederate Flag and refighting the Civil War," McDade said. "The notion that we're all toting our sheet and white top hat and stuff is so wrong, and I'm hoping that's what people will see."
    Cruz can sense it too. The candidate is hoping to do well in Iowa and South Carolina -- though top-three finishes in either state is in no way guaranteed -- but he is staking much of his fortune political fortune on the SEC states that vote only ten days after Republicans in the Palmetto State. Last weekend at a donor summit hosted by the powerful Koch Brothers, Cruz said these southern states were his "firewall."
    "The energy we're seeing in the great state of Alabama is powerful. I feel like we're at the Iron Bowl," Cruz told reporters in the Birmingham suburb of Pelham, referring to the yearly showdown between Alabama and Auburn. "It is our hope to win the Alabama primary."
    That regional pandering appeared effective -- he gained hoops and hollering when cracking Alabama football jokes all day Sunday. And along the two-dozen stops on the seven-day, seven-state bus tour, the Houston-based shop is playing quite openly to the region: A "Biscuits and Gravy" breakfast one day and a "Down Home" Breakfast the next.
    Voters at Cruz events up and down the state Sunday said they were attracted to the first-term senator. At the event in Pelham in Shelby County -- where Republicans invited Cruz to "the reddest county in the reddest state" -- activists rose from their seat a half dozen times as Cruz unveiled a retooled stump speech centering on the five things he would do in during his first day in office.
    But despite the "Courageous Conservative" stickers pasted onto their t-shirts, Republicans in Alabama said their support remained quite soft. Some expressed an affinity for neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has also appeared several times in Alabama as he explored and then eventually launched a presidential campaign.
    And after all, few candidates have even visited, so they can't know whether the best candidate has yet to arrive.
    "We have so many candidates for president," said Tom Powers, expecting to meet more hopefuls in person just like an undecided Iowan might. "We've got a long way to go. I'm still looking, seeing what's going to happen."
    Few Republicans are automatic converts to his campaign. Congressman Mo Brooks, who represents Huntsville and hosted Cruz at a convention center there Sunday evening, wouldn't endorse him when asked by CNN.
    "I'm sure that the southern states are tickled to death that we're going to have a significant role in the choosing of the Republican nominee," Brooks said.