LYNCHBURG, Va. - Sen. Ted Cruz said Monday that he will win his long-shot campaign for president in the same way he won his long-shot bid for Senate in 2010: outhustle his rivals from the party establishment and electrify voters with his message of Christian morals and undiluted conservatism.

"The only way we win this race and - more importantly than that - the only way we turn the country around is if we energize and mobilize an army of courageous conservatives," Cruz said in an interview with the Washington Post.

"The core of this campaign will be at the grass roots," he said.

Cruz (R., Texas) spoke just an hour after he announced his candidacy at Liberty University before a cheering crowd of students who, as it turned out, would have faced a $10 fine if they hadn't shown up to the event, part of a regular campus attendance requirement. Cruz, 44, was the first prominent Republican formally to enter the 2016 race, which could give him a head start on other candidates still playing at "exploring" a run.

At least at the start, he will be running from behind.

Polls in early-primary states put Cruz outside the top five - and, in some cases, outside the top 10 - in the GOP field. But the senator said he had overcome longer odds in Texas, where he surged from obscurity to defeat a well-funded establishment candidate.

In this race, Cruz told the Post, he would rely heavily on family members as surrogates.

He said his wife, Heidi, who plans to take a leave from her job as a managing director at Goldman Sachs, would play an "integral" part in his campaign. Heidi Cruz's role would include "traveling with me, traveling on her own across the country, and working to help build support," Cruz said.

So will his father, Rafael Cruz, an immigrant from Cuba who is now an evangelical pastor. Ted Cruz bristled when asked about criticism of his father, who has previously compared President Obama to Fidel Castro and said that same-sex marriage is part of a government plot to destroy the family and "the concept of God."

Ted Cruz said Democrats and journalists "try to paint a false picture of my dad."

"I love my dad," Cruz said. "He is my hero and he is a man of principle, a man of faith, and I think the media efforts to caricature him are just silly and mean-spirited, and I don't think they'll work because they're fundamentally false."

Now the Texas Republican will hit the road, attempting to mimic the exhausting and wide-ranging outreach campaign that he made across Texas.

After his morning event, Cruz left Virginia for New York, where he met donors at the home of GOP donor Rebekah Mercer.

On Wednesday, he will attend a "Young Professionals for Cruz" gathering in New York. After that, he plans to visit nine cities in a month, with fund-raisers in Houston, San Diego, Chicago, Dallas, and Champaign, Ill.

According to aides, Cruz's campaign wants to raise $1 million during the first week of his candidacy and a total of $40 million to $50 million for the primary.

He will also be reaching out to voters in key early-primary states such as New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, and Colorado.

He will start in New Hampshire on Friday and Saturday, becoming the first major candidate to visit the state in this election cycle after officially jumping into the fray. Cruz will end the month by formally opening his campaign headquarters March 31 in Houston - the city where he grew up.

Cruz's strategy will be to build on a base of support he has cultivated since 2010, impressing tea party-affiliated conservatives with strong stands against Obama and the president's health-care law. The idea is that this hard core of supporters can convert others.

"If you own a base, then you can grow," an adviser to Cruz said on Monday.

On Monday, Cruz signaled his strategy in both the content - and the location - of his formal announcement speech.

By announcing his candidacy at Liberty, the university founded by fundamentalist icon Jerry Falwell, he sent a message that he would court both evangelical voters and young voters.

The youthful spirit of the crowd gathered for a mandatory campuswide "convocation" was obvious during Cruz's speech. They cheered everything from Cruz's mention of their home states to his nods to conservative dreams like abolishing the IRS.

The speech itself embraced the goals of Christian social conservatives, military hawks, and small-government tea partyers - all key elements of the coalition that Cruz is looking to build.

He provided grist for movement stalwarts by highlighting examples of his unbending conservatism.

He talked about the power of the American dream and harnessing the grass roots to propel his campaign forward. "I want to talk to you this morning about reigniting the promise of America," he said.

Sen. Cruz on the Rise

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas became the first high-profile Republican to enter the 2016 race for president on Monday. Here's a look at his life:

A man in a hurry

He won election to the Senate in 2012 as a political rookie, riding a tea party wave to upset a candidate with decades of experience and deep connections inside the Republican Party. He has proceeded since with the same disregard for the GOP establishment, at times maneuvering quixotically in the Senate to mount an aggressive opposition to President Obama.

Legal eagle

Prior to his election to the Senate, Cruz focused on practicing law at the highest level. A graduate of Harvard Law School and clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, Cruz led a Houston-based firm's Supreme Court practice, taught such litigation at the University of Texas, and was charged with representing the state before the high court as its solicitor general.

Family story

The son of a Cuban immigrant and American mother, Cruz was born in Calgary, Alberta, on Dec. 22, 1970, while his parents were working in the oil business. He has since renounced his Canadian citizenship, and lawyers from both parties have said they think he's eligible to run for president. He and his wife, Heidi, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, live in Houston with their two daughters, Caroline and Catherine.

Senate marathon

For 21 hours and 19 minutes in September 2013, Cruz stood in the Senate to urge Congress to cut off money for Obama's health-care law. The marathon speech, which included Cruz's reading of the Dr. Seuss classic Green Eggs and Ham to his daughters, said to be watching their father at home, was partly behind a 16-day partial government shutdown the next month. He later joked the speech featured hours of "my favorite sound" - his own voice.

- AP

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