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Politics & Government

Preparing To Break Away From GOP Field, Ted Cruz Organizes In Tennessee

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What do Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma have in common? They're all holding presidential primaries on March 1. And that's why Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz is spending some quality time in the South this weekend. He's actually been laying the groundwork there for months. It's an area with lots of delegates. From Nashville, Tenn., Chas Sisk of member station WPLN reports.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: For one evening earlier this week, the center of Ted Cruz's Tennessee campaign was a darkened hotel bar.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Senator Ted Cruise of Texas.

(APPLAUSE)

SISK: This was where some of Cruz's biggest boosters were gathered to watch him in the year's final Republican debate. Cruz has been surging in the national polls.

TED CRUZ: We will build a wall that works, and I'll get Donald Trump to pay for it.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's awesome.

SISK: Lines like that have Cruz supporters fired up in Tennessee. Aaron Snodderly predicts Cruz will make another big jump when he visits the state again in a few days.

AARON SNODDERLY: 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.

SISK: Cruz still ranks third in the polls in Tennessee behind businessman Donald Trump and physician Ben Carson. But Cruz has organized a deeper bench of influential supporters - state lawmakers, evangelical leaders, Tea Party activists, gun rights enthusiasts. People like Snodderly, a former Young Republican state chairman. Four years ago, he worked for Rick Santorum's campaign which won Tennessee. Cruz, he says, connects even better.

SNODDERLY: People support Ted Cruz because they love him. In 2012, they supported Santorum because they weren't sure if they liked Romney.

SISK: Cruz last came to Tennessee in August. Back then he was polling in the single digits nationally, but his focus on immigration and national security was already resonating with Southern voters. Even before the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Cruz was talking about terrorism. Less than a month before Cruz's visit, a Tennessee-raised Muslim killed five servicemen in Chattanooga.

CRUZ: ...Went by the memorial of the four Marines and the sailor who was murdered by an act of radical Islamic terrorism.

SISK: 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.

STEVE GILL: 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, a lot of those folks are going to gravitate, I think, to Cruz as you move ahead. He's going to get a bump there.

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

RON RAMSEY: My opinion - people walk in there, have their finger half an inch away from the Trump button and say, this was fun, but nah. That's just my gut feeling, they'll move over to somebody else. I think the logical person there is Cruz.

SISK: 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. For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.