JACKSON, Tenn. — Heartened by rising poll numbers, raucous crowds and a fundraising surge, Ted Cruz traversed the most conservative corners of this state Monday with the confidence of a top-tier presidential candidate.
His audiences, all numbering at least several hundred, ate up a newly reconfigured version of his stump speech, lustily applauding lines long familiar to the Republican Texas senator's faithful.
Like many of his GOP foes, Cruz is settling into a phase of the 2016 race that, in most other cycles, would bring a measure of stability after the initial whirlwind of campaign announcements and cattle calls. Yet the Republican field continues to grapple with the growing reality that is the national front-runner status of Donald Trump, the blustery billionaire who has become a constant presence on the campaign trail even when he's not physically there.
Talking to reporters throughout Monday, Cruz continued to abstain from knocking Trump but showed some signs of weariness with the lingering focus on the real-estate mogul.
"This is not a soap opera of personalities," Cruz chastised reporters at one stop where he was asked why he did not mention the "T word" in his stump speech.
Cruz nonetheless had plenty of reasons to be optimistic Monday. His campaign announced it raised more than $1 million in the first 100 hours following the first Republican presidential debate Thursday in Cleveland. And while it conceded the methodology was imperfect, his team circulated a post-debate poll showing him jumping up to second place.
"Some of this is a manifestation of the momentum that we had coming out of Thursday's debate," Cruz told reporters before speaking at a dinner for Madison County GOP in Jackson, Tenn.
"Since the debate on Thursday, our fundraising has exploded," Cruz boasted earlier Monday to his crowd in Franklin, a city about an hour south of Nashville.
His response to Trump's antics has taken on an almost ritualistic quality, guaranteed to include at least three elements: a vow against intraparty feuding, a dig at the media for stoking conflict and a nod to his campaign's own principles.
"Look, the simple reality is there's nothing the media likes to talk about more than the politics of personality, of one Republican throwing rocks at another," Cruz told reporters after a stop in Murfreesboro. "I'm not interested in playing that game, and I don't think the American people are interested in it.
"I understand that all folks in the media want to talk about is one candidates versus another candidate and all the back-and-forth and all the superficial, silly nonsense," Cruz added. "That's not what this campaign is about."
Asked whether he had any problems with where Trump stands on policy, Cruz zeroed in on the billionaire's comments on illegal immigration, the first in a series of inflammatory remarks that have yet to sink Trump's campaign. While not criticizing Trump's comments, Cruz told reporters he was glad Trump has "managed to finally getting the media to talk about illegal immigration."
As Cruz's bus chugged along Tennessee's leafy highways — part of a weeklong swing through several southern states — other GOP candidates sought to adjust to life with Trump atop the polls. On a conference call Monday specifically set up to escalate his criticism of Trump, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky demurred when asked why some fellow Republicans, including Cruz, have avoided tangling with the real estate mogul.
"You know, I'm not sure," Paul told reporters. "I can only speak for myself, and I think it's high time someone does stand up and really call nonsense nonsense."
If Cruz's supporters were growing tired of Trump, it did not show Monday. Sherri Wright, who came to see Cruz in Chattanooga, said she hardly believes Trump will win the nomination but praised him for raising serious issues in a way that commands widespread attention.
"The debate on Thursday night, I watched the whole thing," Wright said. "That's the best television I've seen in the last three, four months."