LYNCHBURG, Virginia (CNN) — Sen. Ted Cruz, the conservative firebrand from Texas, on Monday became the first Republican to announce his campaign for the presidency.
“I’m running for president and I hope to earn your support!” Cruz said in his tweet, which kickstarts a crowded Republican field that until now has been going through preliminary motions only. The senator from Texas, who burst into the national limelight with his opposition to Obamacare and his willingness to shut down the federal government, presents a direct challenge to the expected bids of establishment Republicans such as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
As part of the carefully coordinated media rollout, Cruz announced his candidacy in a 30-second video message posted on Twitter shortly after midnight Monday morning, roughly 24 hours after the Houston Chronicle reported his planned announcement. Cruz amplified his late-night tweet with a speech Monday at Virginia’s Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world, opening with spotlighting biographical stories of his parents and his wife, Heidi.
“These are all of our stories,” Cruz told the audience Monday, roaming around the stage to speak to different corners of the crowd. “These are who we are as Americans. And yet for so many Americans, the promise of America seems more and more distant.”
Ten thousand students from Liberty University crowded into the university’s main arena for Cruz’s announcement. The venue choice at this socially conservative campus aims to give Cruz an early boost among evangelical voters, who will be key to boosting presidential hopefuls in states like Iowa and South Carolina that have early nominating contests. It was a youthful crowd, as students are required to attend the University’s weekly convocation address.
Not all in the audience were guaranteed Cruz supporters: A noticeable number of participants were wearing red “Stand with Rand” shirts, repping Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who’s also considering a presidential bid.
Cruz’s speech focused on the future, laying out his vision for his campaign and the future of the country, and repeatedly asking his audience to “imagine” a Cruz presidency.
Cruz’s announcement comes on the five-year anniversary of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which Cruz has fought in the Senate to repeal.
“It’s a time for truth, a time to rise to the challenge just as Americans have always done,” Cruz said in his video out Monday morning over clips of American landscapes and people. “It’s going to take a new generation of courageous conservatives to help make America great again. And I’m ready to stand with you to lead the fight.”
Cruz’s advisers envision a three-pronged strategy that focuses on dominating the tea party faction and competing in the libertarian and Christian conservative circles. A candidate who can lead in all three groups will offer a prominent alternative to what Cruz has dubbed the “mushy middle” in the past, a veiled reference to candidates like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker who’ve lined up with more establishment Republicans and are popular in the donor class.
A constant and vocal critic of the Obama administration, Cruz is perhaps best known for his stalwart fight against Obamacare in 2013, which led to a tense standoff between Democrats and Republicans and ultimately resulted in a 17-day government shutdown. The showdown was punctuated by Cruz’s 21-hour speech on the Senate floor.
While popular in conservative and tea party circles, Cruz has a long way to go in terms of broader support in the GOP base, according to public opinion polls. A CNN/ORC International survey conducted this month on the hypothetical Republican primary showed Cruz came in with 4% support among Republicans and independents who lean Republican.
But the field is still relatively open, with the top contender — Jeb Bush — coming in at 16% support, followed by Scott Walker at 13%.
But Cruz has relatively strong favorability numbers. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, he is viewed in a positive light by 45% of Republicans, compared with only 8% who don’t have a favorable opinion of him. Still, 46% say they haven’t heard enough about him to form an opinion.
Jason Miller, an adviser to Cruz’s campaign, confirmed that the campaign’s fund-raising target is $40 million, and the campaign believes it can raise $1 million in the first week.
Cruz this month finished an early-voting state tour to Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire — and he’s scheduled to return to New Hampshire on March 28 to speak at a brunch in Rockingham County. Depending on the Senate schedule this week, he could possibly make more early-state trips, according to advisers.
After his speech Monday, he’ll head up to New York for media appearances and a fund-raiser.
He’s already staking out conservative territory in the nascent primary race, telling voters to challenge other Republican candidates about not just their words, but their actions, and whether they stand on principle.
“It’s easy for candidates to give an answer,” he said at a recent event in New Hampshire, but added: “The proof is in the pudding. What I’ve urged Republicans to ask of every candidate is: ‘Have you walked the walk? Show me your record.'”
Cruz developed a loyal following when he won his 2012 primary battle in Texas as a little-known candidate, forcing then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst into a surprise runoff and ultimately defeating the establishment Republican.
Along with two other first-term senators who are expected to run for president (Rand Paul and Marco Rubio), Cruz will likely face questions over experience, an issue that Republicans brought up in 2008 against Barack Obama, who was also a first-term senator at the time.
Before running for the Senate in 2012 — his first campaign for public office — Cruz was solicitor general of Texas and argued before the Supreme Court. He graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
Born in Canada to a Cuban father and American mother, Cruz was a dual citizen until he renounced Canadian citizenship in 2014. He faced questions over whether he would qualify for the presidency, though law experts consider him a natural-born citizen because he was born to an American mother.