By STEVE PEOPLES
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has become the first major candidate for president, kicking off what's expected to be a rush over the next few weeks of more than a dozen White House hopefuls into the 2016 campaign.
"I am running for president and I hope to earn your support," the tea party favorite said in a Twitter message posted just after midnight on Monday.
Cruz will formally launch his bid during a morning speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, choosing to begin his campaign at the Christian college founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell rather than his home state of Texas or the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. It's a fitting setting for Cruz, a 44-year-old tea party darling whose entry into the 2016 campaign drew cheers Sunday among fellow conservatives.
Amy Kremer, the former head of the Tea Party Express, said that the Republican pool of candidates "will take a quantum leap forward" with Cruz's announcement, adding that it "will excite the base in a way we haven't seen in years."
Elected for the first time just three years ago, when he defeated an establishment figure in Texas politics with decades of experience in office, Cruz has hinted openly for more than a year that he wants to move down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Senate and into the White House.
In an online video promoted on his Twitter account, Cruz offered a preview of his campaign's message.
"It's a time for truth, a time to rise to the challenge, just as Americans have always done. I believe in America and her people, and I believe we can stand up and restore our promise," Cruz said as images of farm fields, city skylines and American landmarks and symbols played in the background. "It's going to take a new generation of courageous conservatives to help make America great again, and I'm ready to stand with you to lead the fight."
While Cruz is the first Republican to declare his candidacy, he is all but certain to be followed by several big names in the GOP, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and two Senate colleagues, Kentucky's Rand Paul and Florida's Marco Rubio.
The Houston Chronicle first reported details about Cruz's campaign launch. His move puts him into pole position among those whose strategy to win the nomination counts on courting the party's most conservative voters, who hold an outsized influence in the Republican nominating process.
"Cruz is going to make it tough for all of the candidates who are fighting to emerge as the champion of the anti-establishment wing of the party," said GOP strategist Kevin Madden. "That is starting to look like quite a scrum where lots of candidates will be throwing some sharp elbows."
Following his election to the Senate in 2012, the former Texas solicitor general quickly established himself as an uncompromising conservative willing to take on Democrats and Republicans alike. He won praise from tea party activists in 2013 for leading the GOP's push to partially shut the federal government during an unsuccessful bid to block money for President Barack Obama's health care law.
In December, Cruz defied party leaders to force a vote on opposing Obama's executive actions on immigration. The strategy failed, and led several of his Republican colleagues to call Cruz out. "You should have an end goal in sight if you're going to do these types of things and I don't see an end goal other than irritating a lot of people," said Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Such admonitions mean little to Cruz, who wins over crowds of like-minded conservative voters with his broadsides against Obama, Congress and the federal government. One of the nation's top college debaters while a student at Princeton University, Cruz continues to be a leading voice for the health law's repeal, and promises to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and scrap the Department of Education if elected president.
Last weekend in New Hampshire, one voter gave Cruz a blank check and told him to write it for whatever amount he needed.
"He's awfully good at making promises that he knows the GOP can't keep and pushing for unachievable goals, but he seems very popular with right wing," said veteran Republican strategist John Feehery. "Cruz is a lot smarter than the typical darling of the right, and that makes him more dangerous to guys like Scott Walker and Rand Paul."
The son of an American mother and Cuban-born father, Cruz would be the nation's first Hispanic president. While in New Hampshire this month, Cruz told voters his daughter, Caroline, had given him permission to join the presidential race in the hopes that the family puppy would get to play on the White House lawn instead of near their Houston high-rise condo.
"If you win, that means Snowflake will finally get a backyard to pee in," Cruz said his daughter told him.
To get there, Cruz knows he needs to reach out beyond his base. He is set to release a book this summer that he said would reflect themes of his White House campaign, and said in a recent Associated Press interview he will use it to counter the "caricatures" of the right as "stupid," `'evil" or "crazy."
"The image created in the mainstream media does not comply with the facts," he said.
Associated Press Writer Philip Elliott in Lynchburg, Virginia, contributed to this report.