BLOOMINGDALE, Ga. - Ted Cruz painted a dark word picture of a nation bankrupt at home and mocked abroad, its values and constitutional rights eroding. But things are about to change, he thundered.
"Everywhere across this country, people are waking up," the Texas Republican senator told a crowd of about 1,000 standing in a field at Ottawa Farms, who cheered every other sentence. "There's an awakening, and there's a spirit of revival sweeping this land."
Cruz was in the middle of a 12-day barnstorming tour through many of the Southern states that hold primaries March 1 in the so-called SEC primary, which his campaign has focused on as friendly ground after the gauntlet of early-voting states. He has been drawing big, raucous crowds as he threatens to overtake Donald Trump for the lead in the Republican presidential race.
He is preaching an uncompromising conservatism that appeals to tea-party activists and evangelical Christians. (It is no accident that his campaign logo, a tongue of fire, could represent the torch of liberty or Pentecost.)
On that crisp morning Saturday, Cruz, pacing on a stage flanked by pecan trees with garlands of Spanish moss in their branches, roared death to ISIS, promised to shred the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran on his first day in office, and vowed to order a federal investigation of allegations that Planned Parenthood traffics in the body parts of aborted babies.
He joked that he knows the Washington establishment of his own party despises him. "I kind of thought that was the whole point of the campaign," Cruz said, to laughs and cheers.
"He's going to be a good man," said Pete Machulas, 75, an Air Force retiree who lives in this community outside Savannah. "The party leaders are always saying we should want a moderate Republican who can compromise, but look where that's gotten us? John McCain, Mitt Romney. . . .. Sometimes you don't want a compromiser; you want someone who will stand up for conservative principles."
As he began the trip, Cruz took steps to repair damage sustained in a fight with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on immigration. Rubio was one of the authors of the "Gang of Eight" 2013 proposal to change immigration laws, with a path for citizenship for many of the 11 million immigrants now in the country illegally.
Rubio later dropped out of that effort, but many conservatives still mistrust him for his role. Yet Cruz, a hard-liner on immigration, sponsored an amendment to the bill that would have allowed legal status - but not citizenship - for those in the United States. At the time, Cruz said it was a compromise. Now, in stops in Virginia and Alabama, he portrayed it as a "poison pill" to kill any loosening of immigration laws.
"I oppose legalization . . . today, tomorrow, forever," Cruz said in a stop outside Mobile, Ala., in a formulation similar to Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace's statement of defiance in 1963: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
Jim Miller, who lined up 90 minutes before Cruz was to speak Sunday at a civic center in Trussville, Ala., said he believed that Cruz was trying to kill the immigration bill with his amendment and that the measure would have assured that illegal immigrants did not get full citizenship.
"That's how politics is done in Washington," said Miller, a federal worker from Huntsville.
Cruz has been organizing for months in the SEC primary states - a reference to the collegiate Southeastern Conference - which among will them award 565 delegates to the Republican convention. The campaign says it has leaders for each of the 153 congressional districts in the 24 states that have primaries before March 15.
"You hunt where the ducks are," said Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe. "On March 1, there will be more votes cast and more delegates awarded than at any time in modern Republican history."
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, led the effort to get Southern states to group their primaries together, hoping to increase the region's clout.
Democrats are holding primaries in the states the same day.
George Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, said that Democrats tried the Super Tuesday approach in 1988, bunching Southern states together, in hopes the party would coalesce behind a moderate nominee. But the Rev. Jesse Jackson won several of the Southern states, as did then-Sen. Al Gore. The eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, won Florida and Texas, Bullock said.
"Everybody could claim a victory, so the fight went on," he said. "Nothing was decided."
The SEC primary could be more decisive in the Democratic race in 2016, he said. Hillary Clinton could pull away from Bernie Sanders in the South, on the strength of what polls say is her overwhelming support among the African American voters who dominate many southern primaries.
"It's less clear-cut on the Republican side," Bullock said. "Trump has the poll lead in most of the states based on name identification. Could he win? Cruz is active here, but we don't know what the race is going to look like yet. There will be some sorting out in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina."
The "Cruz Country Christmas Tour," which wraps up Wednesday in Oklahoma, is the second major Southern swing for the candidate in recent months, while most campaigns are concentrating on Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, the first states to hold nominating votes.
At each stop there is a strategic Santa Claus recruited by the campaign to amuse the children - and collect data. People can access pictures taken with Santa only by entering their names, email addresses, and zip codes on the Cruz campaign website, all grist for the campaign's sophisticated digital targeting operation.
The tour, with Cruz and his family and aides traveling by chartered jet, has a general-election, big-time feel. No time seems wasted.
At the New Life Church in Mechanicsville, Va., for instance, Cruz met privately with Pastor Bert A. Ray II and several dozen more supportive evangelical pastors before speaking to 1,300 people in the sanctuary.
Joann Ray, the pastor's wife, said she admired Cruz for his filibuster that held up a federal budget agreement in 2013 and caused a government shutdown because of his push to strip funding from Obamacare.
"He stands up and does just what he said he would," said Joann Ray, 43, of Woodbridge, Va. "Nobody else does that. Nobody."
Terrie Jenkins, who also attended the rally, says she backs Cruz in part because he shares her religious values.
"He's a strong Christian, and he's not afraid to say it," said Jenkins, 50, a retired nurse from Richmond, Va. "I believe there are a lot of negative connotations to saying you're a Christian these days. We don't live in the times we used to."
Christie queried on Muslims, Obamacare, and abortion. A2.
Trump uses crude language to mock Hillary Clinton. A3.