TRUSSVILLE, Ala. — Ted Cruz is doubling down on the South.
Inside a packed civic center here and in other venues throughout the region, the Republican presidential candidate is making clear his play for the so-called "SEC primary" states is anything but for show. He's firming up his commitment with a weeklong tour of eight mostly southern states, a pre-Christmas barnstorm aimed at getting closer to sealing the deal with southerners he began courting in earnest four months ago.
"Alabama's going to play a critical role in this year's Republican presidential election," Cruz declared during a rally here Sunday afternoon, echoing almost word-for-word what he told southerners during his first foray into the region in August.
That was when Cruz first swept through the South in a bus tour targeting the group of states set to hold their nominating contests on March 1, a potential firewall for the Texas senator. It was a deliberate effort to lay groundwork in the southern states while other candidates were busy getting operations up and running elsewhere — namely Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Yet the campaign is doing things a little differently on this swing, which comes as Cruz is settling into life as a top-tier contender for the GOP nomination. He is flying on a charter plane between slickly produced rallies that begin with a video capturing the arc of Cruz's campaign so far. The rallies have been a step up from the events that comprised Cruz's SEC primary tour in August, when his bus would roll into a parking lot, he would hop out and shortly thereafter he would begin speaking inside a local church or restaurant.
Also on this southern tour, the campaign is making more of an effort to bring the thousands of supporters who turn out for the rallies into the fold of the campaign. At each stop, attendees who have their photos taken with a Santa Claus are given a card instructing them to retrieve the images on the Cruz campaign website, where they are asked to submit their names, email addresses and zip codes. And starting with a rally Saturday morning in Savannah, Georgia, Cruz is amending his stump speech to ask supporters to text "LIBERTY" to 41444, part of a new push by the campaign to solicit donations on mobile devices.
"This is a little bit more driven toward running the campaign after we're done" with events in a state, Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe told reporters Saturday in Daphne, Alabama. "It's great to have a rally ... but then when it goes back, we need to have data so we can continue to communicate with them and engage them with our campaign."
Cruz's focus on the SEC primary states is a key part of his overall pitch to primary voters — that he is the only conservative in the race with the message, money and organization to go the distance. It also helps that Cruz's home state of Texas is the biggest prize on March 1, helping making the day's contests a bulwark in Cruz's march to the nomination.
Alabama offers a snapshot of just how fertile the south has been for Cruz's campaign. Chad Mathis, a co-chair of Cruz's campaign in the state, said Alabamians are "coming out of the wazoo" to get involved, with more than 1,000 volunteers signed up and county chairs named in almost every one of Alabama's 67 counties.
In one show of organizational strength, Cruz was one of only four candidates out of 13 who filed a full slate of delegates for the Alabama primary by the Nov. 6 deadline. Mathis said demand for the slots was so high that Cruz supporters began waging social media campaigns to secure a spot.
"We had people running against each other to be a Cruz delegate," Mathis said.
Yet even as Cruz's campaign grows in Alabama, the GOP field in the state is not as open as it was when Cruz's bus rolled through Huntsville and Pelham in August. Alabama GOP Chairwoman Terry Lathan said the Cruz campaign is "very loud and active" in the state, but so are at least two others: Trump's campaign is "making a lot of noise," while Rubio's is "up and running full speed."
"If you want to take the pulse of a conservative voter in the Republican Party ahead of 2016, then Alabama is the place you need to come to and say hello to the folks, and they’re doing it," Lathan said in an interview Friday, a day before she gave a warm-up speech at Cruz's rally in Daphne. Alabama, she declared, is "no longer a fly-over state" for GOP presidential candidates.
Rubio's campaign in particular appears to be keeping pace with Cruz in Alabama. Like Cruz, Rubio has a full slate of delegates in the state — in fact, he has more than Cruz does, 76 to 66. And also like Cruz, Rubio has a point person in every congressional district as well as a county chair in nearly every county, according to the co-chairs of Rubio's campaign in Alabama, Will Ainsworth and Bill Armistead.
"I believe that we’re going to have the strongest ground game among all the presidential candidates" in Alabama, Armistead said, suggesting the Rubio campaign is taking a different approach to the state than Cruz's is. "We’re not looking for publicity right now."
Armistead, a former chairman of the Alabama County Republican Party, said Rubio's popularity in the state was on full display when he made his first campaign stop there Dec. 1. He reportedly drew more than 850 people to a rally in Guntersville, which Ainsworth represents in the Alabama House of Representatives. And Rubio raked in more than $250,000 at a single fundraiser while visiting the state the same day, according to Armistead.
Cruz's supporters admit he no longer has Alabama to himself, even if he was the first GOP candidate to seriously devote time and resources to the state in August.
"Right now it's a two-person race in Alabama — Trump and Cruz," said U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, the chairman of Cruz's Alabama leadership team. In an interview Friday, Brooks had a plain-spoken message for Alabamians on the fence between Cruz and the bombastic billionaire: With Cruz, "you know he’s going to do what he says he’s going to do. With Donald Trump, it’s a crapshoot."
Trump has nonetheless had the highest-profile visit to Alabama of the GOP candidates so far this election cycle. The billionaire packed tens of thousands of people into Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile in what was described at the time the largest event held by any Republican presidential candidate this year.
Stumping Saturday and Sunday in Alabama, Cruz encountered rowdy, adoring crowds that leapt to their feet at the mention of even some of the more mundane lines in Cruz's stump speech. While he largely stuck to the script he's been using for months, Cruz ad-libbed generous helpings of red meat whenever he could.
Before a whooping-and-hollering audience of 1,500 near Birmingham, Cruz eviscerated Obama for his remarks tying radical Islamic terrorism to climate change, asking, "What kind of numbskull thinks that the SUV in your driveway is a bigger threat to our security than a bunch of lunatics who want to kill us?"
Addressing another raucous audience Saturday afternoon near Mobile, Cruz was interrupted as he began to say what he would do on his first day in office.
"Put Hillary in jail!" someone in the crowd of 1,300 shouted.
"She may already be there," Cruz responded without missing a beat. "If so, I'll make sure to bake her a cake and send it to her."
As Cruz traipsed through the Yellowhammer State, there were ample reminders that Alabamians were just as excited about their expanded influence in the nominating process as they were about Cruz's candidacy. At each stop, the candidate himself repeated his refrain from August that the SEC primary states have a serious opportunity to "ensure that the next Republican nominee is a strong conservative."
"The heart and soul of this country for the first time is going to have a real say in who our nominee is come next year," radio host Cliff Sims said while introducing Cruz in Trussville. "And let me tell you, this is something we cannot take lightly."
Among Cruz supporters, the phrase "SEC primary" is no longer has the air of curiosity it did when Cruz used it on the stump in August across the South. Tim Dodson, a truck driver who came to see Cruz in Daphne, had three words Saturday when asked about March 1: "It's about time."