WASHINGTON (AP) – Possible presidential hopeful Ted Cruz is auditioning at one of the nation's largest meetings of young evangelicals, a critical voting bloc for any Republican with White House ambitions.
The Texas senator and tea party favorite was to speak Wednesday before the student body of Liberty University, the Virginia school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. These sessions, which feature remarks from a campus visitor, prayer and music, are favorite stops for potential White House contenders honing their message and trying to build buzz among voters with great sway over who will be chosen as the GOP's next presidential nominee.
A visit also signals respect for the Christian university and its formidable alumni network.
"Sen. Cruz has boldly and courageously defended the United States Constitution and the principles of limited government our founders held dear even when it meant opposing members of his own political party," university Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. said in a statement.
More than 100,000 students take classes on the Lynchburg, Va., campus and online, making it the world's largest Christian university. The morning worship sessions routinely draw packed houses, with students filling most of the 8,000 permanent seats inside the Vines Center and others finding space in folding chairs on the basketball court.
Thousands more watch online, either live or on recordings.
Cruz is following his father onto the stage.
The Rev. Rafael Cruz, a pastor in the suburbs of Dallas, spoke to the same campus event last year to warm reviews. Born in Cuba, the elder Cruz has been talking up his son's potential presidential bid as he travels the country and meets with fellow pastors.
Cruz, a first-term senator, has been open about his Christian faith but has tended to focus publicly on constitutional and fiscal issues more than social ones. But in recent weeks, he has not shied from social policy.
Last month Cruz told an influential group of home-school advocates in Iowa that the United States was founded on Christian values. He also told a separate group of anti-abortion rights activists in Washington that they should not compromise on their beliefs.
In coming weeks, Cruz plans to speak to a "Freedom Summit" in New Hampshire, the early voting state, along with potential rivals Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and perennial potential contender Donald Trump are also slated to be on hand.
Cruz also plans to attend a Free Enterprise Foundation dinner a few days later at The Citadel in yet another early voting state, South Carolina.
The targeted outreach to these segments of the fractured Republican Party is necessary if Cruz is going to expand his appeal beyond the tea party-aligned wings of the GOP where he is among the favorites at this early stage of the 2016 contest.
For Cruz, these trips offer a chance to introduce himself to voters directly and counter criticism from those who blame him for last year's partial government shutdown over President Barack Obama's health care law.
"Last fall, Ted Cruz shut down the federal government in a futile attempt to gut the Affordable Care Act," said state Democratic Party spokeswoman Ashley Bauman. "Ted Cruz is the model of today's Virginia Republican Party, who cater to a rigid, extreme ideology above doing what's best for Virginians."
Liberty, with its thrice-weekly gatherings in the rounded convocation center, opens many doors for those looking to join — or shape — the 2016 GOP race.
During the 2012 presidential contest, GOP nominee Mitt Romney spoke to the university's commencement ceremonies.
Other previous presidential contenders to visit the campus include Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Gingrich and Huckabee, along with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Looking forward to 2016, Paul already has visited Liberty, appearing with Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli last year during that campaign's last days. Cuccinelli lost the election.
Others seriously considering a run are expected to soon visit the school in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.