MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Ted Cruz is spending the week in southern states like this one, making the case to voters over gravy-soaked biscuits, fried chicken and sweet tea that they will have an outsize say in nominating the GOP’s 2016 presidential candidate.
"We are focused heavily on the South, and the reason is this year's presidential schedule has been compressed and accelerated," Cruz told reporters before a stop here, echoing a familiar message for thousands who have turned out to see him since Friday in the so-called “SEC primary” states that will vote earlier than usual on March 1. "Tennessee, I believe, is going to play a critical role in the Republican primary process and all of the SEC primary's going to play a critical role helping ensure that the next Republican nominee is a real and a genuine conservative."
Yet while Cruz trumpets the importance of the SEC primary — he has described it as a “firewall” — it is just one part of a long-game strategy he is ramping up as he plots a path to the White House. The Republican Texas senator is gearing up for a drawn-out hunt for delegates that, if all goes according to plan, could culminate with him as the conservative alternative to a moderate front-runner when the dust settles next spring.
In an interview aboard his campaign bus between Tupelo and Olive Branch, Mississippi, Cruz argued that few other candidates are equipped for the long haul like he is — and some are betting too much on potentially winning a single early-voting state. Cruz has already began building leadership teams and making trips to states far into the nominating schedule, even beyond the southern locales he is currently barnstorming.
“Of the 17 Republican candidates in the field, a significant number of those candidates are not in a position to be able to run a national campaign,” Cruz said. “They lack the financial resources, they lack the manpower, they lack the leadership teams, the grassroots teams, and they’re not investing time that is needed for a national campaign. We’re committed to doing all of that.”
In Cruz's view, the accelerated primary schedule is meant to benefit the candidate with the most money, typically a moderate whose coffers can keep pace with the one-two punch of contests. But he believes he may be able to flip that script as a well-funded conservative, an achievement that has become a regular part of his stump speech.
Cruz’s long-simmering talk of a dragged-out nomination fight has led to speculation about a brokered convention, which has not happened in decades. On Tuesday, Cruz acknowledged the long odds of such a scenario but insisted his campaign was nonetheless prepared.
“History has shown that hasn’t happened in a long time, so it’s probably not a likely outcome,” Cruz said. “But anything is possible, and so any sensible campaign will prepare for every eventuality.”
Cruz is quick to note that his focus on the long run does not mean he is neglecting the first three early voting states. But in the interview, he suggested the sped-up 2016 process may not reward a candidate who stakes his or her hopes on only Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.
“In prior cycles, a candidate could go basically move to Iowa, live there for a year and hope to get struck by lightning and surprise everyone and ride that momentum" to win the nomination, Cruz said. “I think the 2016 calendar makes that path extraordinarily difficult.”
Cruz said he was struck by how many Republican candidates view either Iowa or New Hampshire as a "must win." If those candidates do not excel in their designated state, their campaigns are "effectively over," he added, contrasting that with the "breadth" of support he believes his campaign has built across the country.
Cruz supporters see the strategy as a natural approach for a scrappy underdog who mastered the art of the long haul while waging a long-shot bid for Senate against former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Among those backers is Saul Anuzis, who runs Cruz's campaign in Michigan, which votes March 8.
“I think he’s being realistic,” Anuzis said. “If you look at his Senate race, he didn’t win it by going up front and knocking a few home runs at once. He did it by consistently hitting singles through all nine innings.”
Such a plan has its skeptics, particularly among those who interpret promises of a "national campaign" as a ploy to ease expectations for a candidate's performance in the first three early voting states.
“A lot of people are trying to talk that game, and I get it," said a GOP operative working for a rival campaign. "All the candidates are going to try to be smart and build the network to get them into March and the SEC primary, but the reality is — and Cruz knows this better than anybody else — the meal ticket comes out of Iowa, and he’s going to have to do exceedingly well" there.
Cruz, no doubt aware of the appearance, is emphasizing throughout his southern swing that he is still “all in” in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Speaking with reporters before the Memphis stop, Cruz said the three states "matter intensely."
“You have to be careful you don’t put too much emphasis on too far out,” said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. Hagle noted Cruz may indeed be "all in" in places like Iowa, but the perception could be "that if he's in these SEC states, he's not here in Iowa and other candidates may be."
In any case, the strategy is on full display with Cruz’s weeklong swing through seven southern states that represent almost a third of the delegates needed to win the GOP nomination. The tour, scheduled to wrap up Thursday in Oklahoma, is taking him to many parts of the country that have yet to a see 2016 candidate, giving him an early and aggressive start on building support in the South.
On Tuesday, Cruz’s campaign was already declaring its Cruz Country bus tour a success, boasting of crowds that all numbered at least 500. One event drew nearly 2,000 people, his team said.
Among Cruz backers, his slow-but-steady approach to the primary map continues to evoke memories of his Senate campaign. Those supporters include Gaylon Wiley, a pastor who has known Cruz since he was 8 years old.
“Of course he won the Senate race in Texas. Nobody thought he could do that. He did, and he may pull this one off,” said Wiley, who came to see Cruz on Monday afternoon in Murfreesboro, Tenneessee. “He’ll do everything he can to get it done.”