Senator Ted Cruz of Texas kicked off in recent days what is likely to be the longest, most expensive and perhaps most contentious Republican Party presidential battle in history.
Cruz has been lagging in the national polls and hoped that his early announcement would give him some momentum as conservative activists around the country begin to focus on the fight for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016.
Cruz hopes to build on his support among Tea Party supporters and expand his appeal to evangelical Christian voters, hence his decision to announce on the campus of the nation’s largest Christian college, Liberty University in Virginia.
“What I am so encouraged by is the enthusiasm that we are seeing, particularly in the early primary states, in Iowa, in New Hampshire and in South Carolina,” Cruz told ABC News. “People are hungry for someone who will stand up and fight alongside them.”
Whether Cruz’s early announcement will boost him from his low position in the polls remains to be seen.
The 2016 field promises to be among the most crowded in recent history. But one thing is certain - Cruz is not easily deterred from his ambitions. Cruz was born in Canada but since his mother was an American citizen he is eligible to run for president.
In a recent profile in The Washington Post, Cruz told friends that he began looking at his own presidential eligibility when he was a child.
Crowded field lacking frontrunner
The Cruz announcement signals the beginning of an intense period of activity as other candidates prepare to jump into the race while others still pondering a run for the White House assess levels of support and their ability to raise funds.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is at or near the top of most polls among the Republican contenders. But Bush told voters in Georgia he’s aware he will have to overcome the doubts of conservative activists.
“I’m the most conservative governor in Florida’s history," he said. "I cut taxes every year.”
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell worked on the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign. He picked Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Florida Senator Marco Rubio as the top Republican contenders so far who will appeal to Republican primary voters.
“They are looking for three things," he said. "They want someone who can win the White House in 2016. They want a strong leader and they want someone who is going to do what they say they are going to do and not just sell campaign rhetoric to win the nomination.”
Bush is a favorite of the party’s establishment wing while Cruz wants to become the champion of Tea Party activists and social conservatives.
O’Connell said the various Republican contenders will be looking to appeal to various groups with the Republican Party who play key roles in the nominating process.
“It is a very complicated mosaic," he said. "We have four main types of voters. There are the moderate or establishment voters, which are about 40 to 45 percent of the party. We have what are known as grass roots conservatives or the media likes to call them Tea Party. They are about 20 to 25 percent of the party.
"We have social conservatives, which are about 18 to 20 percent of the party," O'Connell said. "They are strongly against abortion and they are strongly against gay marriage. And then we have this libertarian strain, which is about ten to 15 percent of the party and they just don’t like the government whatsoever.”
Keys to victory
A long campaign will test the ability of contenders to raise money, analysts say.
“There are more than 20 potential contenders, which makes it potentially the largest field in either party in modern times,” said University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato. “Now the truth is there isn’t going to be enough money to support most of these candidates and so some of them just want to get on the debate stage to make their points or sell their books.”
The 2016 Republican race could be the most exciting in decades according to Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz.
“Normally what you find in a Republican race and sometimes in a Democratic race is, if not an heir apparent, a pretty clear frontrunner," he said. "We don’t have that in the Republican race so it is going to be a more interesting one than we have sometimes seen.”
Republicans seem excited by their choices so far but already some conservative activists are talking about banding together with the aim of denying Bush the nomination because they see him as unacceptably moderate.
As for the eventual winner, political strategist O’Connell said it will be a test of who can put together the strongest coalition of the various conservative groups that make up the Republican Party.
“You have certain blocs of support depending on the candidate," he said. "The question is, can you broaden your appeal to all major swaths of the Republican Party and that is really going to be the key if you want to make this a two candidate race or actually win the nomination.”