Three of the top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination were in Iowa on Friday trolling for votes. Four others were set to roam New Hampshire over the weekend in search of support. And where was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz? At a small airport in Kennesaw, imploring Georgians for votes.
As Cruz enters a new phase of his campaign, with rising poll numbers and a sense of momentum, he’s increasingly focusing on the South, where he hopes to rack up a trove of delegates and the embrace of the Republican Party’s right flank.
As he tries to position himself as the alternative to Donald Trump over the likes of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and other establishment favorites, the regional March 1 vote — known in these parts as the SEC primary — is the cornerstone of his strategy.
“I don’t know who did the calendar,” said Rick Tyler, a Cruz spokesman, “but it certainly benefits us.”
There are 565 delegates up for grabs March 1 in the first wave of primaries and caucuses held after the four early-voting contests in February: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Cruz’s home state of Texas has the most delegates at stake that day. The delegates are awarded proportionally instead of on a winner-takes-all basis, which means no candidate is likely to land a knockout blow.
But Cruz hopes to emerge from the vote as one of the last contenders standing. And his visit to Kennesaw on Friday — the third stop in a weeklong tour of cities voting March 1 — is aimed at consolidating his support in Georgia.
“We are so encouraged by what we’re seeing. The energy, the passion, the excitement we’re seeing on the ground is breathtaking,” said Cruz. “We’re seeing conservatives uniting, and that’s what it will take to win.”
For now, Trump stands as the biggest threat to Cruz’s Southern strategy. The billionaire developer grabs headlines with his showy rhetoric and his commanding lead in the polls, but he has also quietly built the infrastructure needed to land on ballots and fill out delegate slates around the region.
And he has shown an uncanny ability to establish a rapport with working-class evangelicals who drive turnout across the South, voters Cruz is counting on.
“This is the heart of conservative country,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist. “And while Trump has done well among evangelicals, the reality is culturally speaking, Ted Cruz speaks the language much better than Trump does.”
The crowded field has divided many Georgia conservatives, who have mostly scattered their endorsements among the half-dozen candidates atop the polls.
State Sen. Josh McKoon, one of Cruz’s highest-profile supporters in Georgia, said he was guided by the lessons of the past two presidential contests when he picked the Texas senator.
In those races, the campaigns of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum petered out as more moderate and establishment forces coalesced around their rivals. For McKoon, the combination of Cruz’s conservative credentials and the more than $65 million his campaign and its allies have raised proved convincing.
“He will be uniquely positioned in a way that we haven’t seen in modern political history,” said McKoon. “He’s an unapologetic conservative with the financial resources to go the distance. And if he is able to rally his forces on March 1, it will be very hard to knock him out.”
‘Where the ducks are’
Part of that appeal revolves around visiting off-the-radar places. His campaign boasts that it’s organized in each of the more than 150 congressional districts that cast ballots before March 15. His campaign recently opened an office in Valdosta and his wife, Heidi, made big local news when she spoke in the South Georgia town of Blackshear.
“Hunt where the ducks are,” said Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe, adding: “When you take a look at where the votes are cast and where the delegates are awarded, that’s how we model our campaign and that’s what we’re focused on doing.”
Consider Wesley Nichols among the hunted. The 32-year-old from Covington flirted with supporting Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson. But Cruz’s conservative message and take-no-prisoners style won him over.
“He’s the one who is fighting for what I believe in,” said Nichols. “Trump just seems like a dangerous gamble. And Carson never appealed to me. Cruz is the guy.”
AJC writer Daniel Malloy contributed to this article.