Ted Cruz counting on Southern voters to carry him to the GOP nomination

Sen. Cruz speaks to the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition convention on Jan. 18, 2015 in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Sen. Cruz speaks to the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition convention on Jan. 18, 2015 in Myrtle Beach, S.C.  (2015 Getty Images)

He’s not at the top of the polls that measure which presidential candidate is favored among GOP likely voters.

No matter.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas conservative who – before a certain real estate mogul entered the fray – was considered the presidential candidate who most shocked with his blunt and anti-establishment talk, is feeling like quite the rock star in the South.

At a Nashville suburb event on Monday, more than 2,000 people swarmed an arts center to hear Cruz. After he spoke, they mobbed him, according to Politico.

On Tuesday, in Mississippi, hundreds turned out to see Cruz, who has been on a weeklong, seven-state “Cruz Country” bus tour.

When the Tea Party favorite remarked to reporters there that people have had it with politicians who just give lip service, someone from the crowd yelled “That’s right!”

Ted Cruz is counting on these Southern voters to carry him to the Republican presidential nomination.

They'll know that's all part of college football lore in the Southeastern Conference, whose make-up roughly matches the states that will hold primaries next March.

The so-called "SEC primary" is a new phenomenon, with Alabama, Tennessee and others moving up their contests for a Southern-tinged Super Tuesday on March 1.

Louisiana and Mississippi host primaries the following week.

Cruz says the tight turnaround will make it impossible for second-tier candidates to focus exclusively on early states and hope an "unexpected victory" can translate into national momentum.

To be sure, Cruz is not dismissing crucial primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Politico notes, but the South serves as a strong cushion.

In the South, Cruz has enthralled people with his “often rapturous appreciation of his scorched earth, anti-Washington rhetoric,” as Politico put it.

“We pray so,” Politico quoted a woman as responding aloud when Cruz said he is “convinced we are going to win in November 2016” by nominating a “strong conservative.”

Cruz’s ground game in the South is more entrenched than that of most of the others running for president.

Those supporting his campaign in the South include many prominent Tea Party members.

“Anyone who wants to win the nomination had better try to compete in the SEC primary, because any candidate who comes through Super Tuesday and gets blown out is likely to suffer a fatal blow,” Cruz told POLITICO aboard his campaign bus. “Right now there are very few other candidates investing the time, there are very few other candidates putting in place the leadership teams, the grass-roots organizations” in the South.

“There are seasons and phases to a campaign,” Politico quoted Cruz as saying.

“We have spent a great deal of time in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and as the primary gets closer we will spend much more time [there],” Cruz said. “This is a window now where we can invest, and invest early in March primary states. Build in place a leadership team, put in place a grass-roots infrastructure that can continue to build while we return to an intensive time commitment [in the early states].”

Cruz said the kind of reception he is finding in the South comes from being a true conservative, and not flip-flopping on key issues.

“If you look at the states in the SEC primary … all are conservative states,” he said. “All are heavily evangelical states. All have a strong military and veteran presence. All are passionate about Second Amendment rights. And what we are finding is that my record as a consistent conservative is resonating powerfully throughout the March 1 states.”

Retired civil engineer Jim White, who schlepped two hours to hear Cruz, found in the Texan someone he hopes will be the next Oval Office occupant.

“We’ve looked at all the others and we’re about there with Cruz,” said White, according to Politico. “He stands for all the values we respect … and the reason I believe [what he says] is he’s demonstrated it in Congress.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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