WASHINGTON — Senator Ted Cruz, one of the most polarizing figures in American politics who has built a career on obstructing the political establishment, jump-started the 2016 presidential campaign Monday by becoming the first major candidate to formally announce he is running for the White House.
During a 30-minute speech before 10,000 cheering evangelical Christian students at Liberty University in Virginia, the Texas Republican sought to rally conservatives behind him under the banner of “reigniting the promise of America.”
“It is a time for truth; it is a time for liberty,” he said. “It is a time to reclaim the Constitution of the United States.”
But his candidacy will test the limits of a politician who is proudly disruptive and has often sought to focus on divisions, rather than the uniting rhetoric that national candidates tend to employ. A major challenge for Cruz, who is among the highest-profile figures to emerge from the Tea Party movement, will be translating that activist fervor into a viable national campaign.
Cruz vowed Monday to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and forbid same-sex marriage. He said he would repeal the Affordable Care Act and fight against the Common Core national education standards.
Cruz delivered an overtly Christian message, roaming the stage like a megachurch pastor with a wireless microphone, describing the spiritual journey he and his family have taken.
“Roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home,” Cruz said. “Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”
By announcing early, and skipping the exploratory phase that many candidates use to test the waters, Cruz is staking an early claim in the competition for conservative support and attempting to establish himself as the chief alternative to more establishment Republican candidates such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
His announcement could increase pressure on several likely conservative competitors to declare their intensions. Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who shares many of Cruz’s philosophies but has tried to broaden his appeal, is expected to announce next month that he is running. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is also expected to announce his candidacy next month.
Cruz has made repeated visits to early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
His heavy emphasis on religion — and an announcement at the Lynchburg, Va.-based campus founded by pastor Jerry Falwell — might help Cruz in the Iowa caucuses, in which evangelical Christians tend to hold great sway.
“Somebody has got to be in the forefront and taking a stand and stopping this madness. That’s where a lot of people appreciate what he’s done in the Senate,” said Steve Scheffler, an influential Republican National Committee member from Iowa.
“He’s got the courage of his convictions. He’s not afraid to take a stand,” he added. “The left comes after him; some people in his own party may not be very happy with him. But . . . he’s not going to back off when he thinks he’s right.”
Early polls have Cruz far behind. In Iowa, he is polling at 4 percent and trailing eight other candidates.
Cruz, 44, was born in Canada but because his mother is American, many legal scholars believe he would meet the constitutional requirement as a “natural-born citizen” to run for president.
Cruz grew up mostly in the Houston area before attending college at Princeton, where he developed a reputation as a quick-witted national debate champion. He attended Harvard Law School, where classmates have described him as a strident conservative, wearing cowboy boots and poking liberals on campus with glee.
After embarking on several prestigious clerkships, including one under Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Cruz became the Texas solicitor general and argued nine times in front of the Supreme Court.
In his 2012 Senate race, he challenged the Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst of Texas, who, as a longtime Republican officeholder, had the backing of many in the state, including Governor Rick Perry. Then, as now, Cruz was the underdog. But with the backing of Tea Party activists, he easily won.
But since Cruz arrived in Washington, even GOP critics have said he cares more about theatrics than substance.
In 2013, he staged a 21-hour speech and pushed for a government shutdown unless Democrats yielded on their defense of President Obama’s health care law.
“I intend to speak in support of defunding Obamacare until I am no longer able to stand,” he said.
He has often been a thorn in the side of Republican congressional leaders, stoking the anger of conservative House Republicans and urging them to defy Speaker John Boehner. And he has tried to upend the strategies of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and pushed the party in a more confrontational direction. In an effort that ultimately failed but generated a large amount of publicity, he recently tried to withhold funding for Department of Homeland Security unless Obama rescinded executive orders on immigration.
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, mocked Cruz on Monday.
“Shutting down the federal government and reading Dr. Seuss on the Senate floor are the marks of a carnival barker, not the leader of the free world,” King, who has also been considering a presidential bid, said in a statement.
During his campaign, Cruz will probably criticize Bush and others for positions that conservatives think are too moderate. Cruz hinted at those Monday, saying he would vociferously oppose the Common Core education standards that Bush has made one of his highest priorities in recent years.
“There are people who wonder if faith is real,” Cruz said. “I can tell you, in my family there’s not a second of doubt.”
“I believe God isn’t done with America yet,” he added.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.