Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz is making a big bet on building a strong organization outside of the four early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. The idea is to pick up a strong lead in delegates needed to secure the nomination when 14 states, mostly in the South, vote on March 1st in the so-called SEC primary.

One of the places Cruz is trying that strategy out in is Tennessee, where he'll stop on Tuesday, part of a multi-day tour of states voting on March 1st.

Last week, the center of Ted Cruz's Tennessee campaign was a darkened hotel bar, where some of his biggest boosters in the state gathered to watch the most recent Republican presidential debate.

Cruz supporters were fired up by his feisty performance in the debate and point to the Texas Senator's surge in the polls.

"I'm seeing and hearing everywhere that Ted Cruz is our man. People may not be 100 percent sure they're going to vote for him, but they're 100 percent sure they agree with him," said Aaron Snodderly, a former chair of the Tennessee Young Republicans.

In Tennessee, Cruz still ranks third in the polls behind businessman Donald Trump and physician Ben Carson. But Cruz has organized a deeper bench of influential supporters including state lawmakers, evangelical leaders, tea party activists and gun rights enthusiasts.

Four years ago, Snodderly worked for Rick Santorum's campaign, which won Tennessee but says conservatives connect better with Cruz.

"People support Ted Cruz because they love him. In 2012, they supported Santorum because they weren't sure if they liked [Mitt] Romney," said Snodderly.

Cruz last came to Tennessee in August back when he was polling in the single digits nationally. But his focus on immigration and national security already resonated with conservative voters. Even before the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Cruz talked about terrorism on the trail. Less than a month before Cruz's visit, a Tennessee-raised Muslim killed five servicemen in Chattanooga.

Cruz isn't the only Republican candidate who speaks to those concerns.
But he's the only one with an organization strong enough to capitalize, says Steve Gill, a conservative activist and Cruz delegate.

"So as those other candidates fall off, where do the Carson people go? A lot of them are evangelical and they're going to go to Cruz. The Huckabee, the Santorum, lot of those folks, I think, are going to gravitate to Cruz as you move ahead," said Gill.

It's not just Cruz's supporters who believe he'll surge to the front. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is one of the state's most influential conservatives. He doesn't plan to endorse anyone in the primary but is also forecasting a Cruz victory.

"My opinion, when people walk in there, have their finger half an inch away from the Trump button and say, 'This was fun, but nah.' And move over to somebody else. That's just my gut feeling, and I think the logical person there is Cruz," said Ramsey.

Ramsey says Trump's glibness and political incorrectness have grabbed attention but it'll be Cruz's strong game plan that'll eventually carry the day.

Copyright 2015 Nashville Public Radio. To see more, visit Nashville Public Radio.

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