- Ted Cruz's decision to jump-start the 2016 election season is an implicit admission of the challenges he faces
- Cruz will fight a bevy of other candidates for the votes of the Christian right
Washington (CNN)Ted Cruz is back in his favorite place: the spotlight.
As the first candidate to quit the charade of "exploring" a presidential run and actually jumping in, the Texas Republican senator presented an image Monday of decisiveness and vision -- all before an auditorium of mostly supportive young evangelicals.
Now comes the hard part.
Cruz must make inroads with wide swaths of the GOP if he hopes to break through as a top-tier candidate. He doesn't have many friends in the party establishment thanks to his hard-line tactics on issues like Obamacare. And he's facing steep competition for the conservative vote from the likes of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Even evangelicals, Cruz's target audience during his launch speech at Liberty University, aren't firmly in his column.
The firebrand's decision to jump-start the 2016 election season now is an implicit admission of the daunting challenges he will face in a crowded GOP field where multiple Republicans will vie for the same social and evangelical support base.
"Ted is clearly a player," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian public policy ministry. "But the competition this cycle is very steep."
By choosing Liberty University in Virginia, which was founded by fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell, to roll out his long shot campaign, Cruz made clear he won't cede the Christian right to another candidate.
"From the dawn of this country, at every stage, America has enjoyed God's providential blessing," said Cruz, roaming the stage with a microphone like a megachurch preacher on a Sunday morning. "Over and over again, when we faced impossible odds, the American people rose to the challenge. You know, compared to that, repealing Obamacare and abolishing the IRS ain't all that tough."
Liberty offered Cruz a ready-made crowd: young evangelicals in a vast auditorium who had little choice but to pack the stands, because the announcement came during their compulsory weekly convocation. This is exactly the kind of coalition of youthful Christian idealists Cruz must win over and get to work in early voting states if his presidential hopes are to catch fire.
But Cruz won't have this political territory all to himself. Several students sat in the audience within view of the cameras wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with "Rand," referring to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is also likely to make a play for young conservatives.
Meanwhile, Walker, with his governing record and history of facing down a recall and trade unions, seems to have eclipsed Cruz in the minds of many conservatives who are desperate to take back the White House.
"When the grass roots look at a guy like Scott Walker -- he can not only bridge the divide, we believe, in the Republican Party, but he might be the one who can bridge the divide like he did in Wisconsin," said Jennifer Stefano, a Pennsylvania tea party activist. "That's what I think is dominating Ted Cruz -- he has not made as many headlines as in 2013, as when he tried to stop and defund Obamacare."
Cruz must also face off against Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Dr. Ben Carson to win evangelicals -- a tough task.
"It's a crowded field to begin with and it's almost as if, within the Republican contest, there are some early sub-primaries: Who is going to be the establishment candidate? Who is going to be the social conservative candidate?" said David Yepsen, who was for years the dean of Iowa caucus reporters from his perch at the Des Moines Register.
Meanwhile, a CNN/ORC International Poll last week put Cruz as the choice of 4% of likely Republican voters.
So if he seems unlikely to win, why would Cruz get in -- and so early?
Paradoxically, the size of the task facing Cruz and the tempered expectations for his bid may also mean that the risks that often weigh against a presidential candidacy -- the potential damage to a political career that can be caused by a poorly run campaign -- may not apply.
Perkins said he had been assured by Cruz personally that he believes he can create a path to the nomination -- and ultimately the presidency -- despite the fact that he would be taking aim at the White House with the almost unanimous disapproval of the Republican establishment.
Announcing now could give Cruz more time to test messages beyond those tailored for evangelicals. He used his speech Monday to also slam Common Core education standards and immigration reform, areas where establishment GOP favorite Jeb Bush is perceived to be vulnerable. He also joined the hawkish Republican barrage on foreign policy, slamming President Barack Obama over his row with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his record on Iran and combating "radical Islamic terrorism."
But should he fall short in his 2016 bid, a successful campaign that positions Cruz as the leader of the evangelical right would certainly boost his political brand and position him for a future presidential run. And at only age 44, there's plenty of time for that.
His Texas Senate seat, meanwhile, seems to be his as long as he wants it. He doesn't have to run for re-election until 2018, so a presidential bid wouldn't get in the way of the day job.
So in a sense, Cruz may not have that much to lose.
Another reason to get in early is Iowa. The state is going to be crucial for Cruz's hopes because it is the most fertile early voting territory for his chosen campaign path. A win in the first-in-the-nation caucus could crown Cruz as the undisputed champion of the social and evangelical conservative wing of the party.
But he is going to be facing proven Iowa campaigners. Huckabee won the state in 2008 and Santorum won a recount over the eventual GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, in 2012. Both have substantial networks of support and, crucially, know many caucus voters personally in a state where the personal touch counts for everything.
"I think Cruz has generated some excitement in Iowa, and he is a new face," said Yepsen. "But it is going to be a while before he closes the sale with a lot of activists."
An added bonus for Cruz getting in now: The early bird gets the best coverage.
In a matter of weeks, Republican presidential announcements from the massive GOP field will draw little more than a shrug, so getting out ahead of expected announcements from Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio could be a good idea. When Democrat Hillary Clinton makes her official plunge into the 2016 race, any Republican candidate may struggle to dominate media coverage for several weeks.
Monday also happened to be the fifth anniversary of the day Obamacare was signed into law. Because Cruz has spent endless hours trying to overturn it -- winning the appreciation of conservative activists in the process -- Monday was a good moment to highlight the point.
Then there is money.
Cruz, unlike some other potential Republican candidates, may have to work extra hard to raise the campaign funds he needs to mount a viable campaign. His early announcement gives him time for a post-announcement spurt before the next quarterly fundraising figures close at the end of the month, and a full three months to put up an impressive number in the next quarter.