Ted Cruz, Texas senator and Republican firebrand, became the first major figure to announce his candidacy for U.S. president Monday, urging a Virginia crowd to "imagine a president" who "stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel," abolishes the IRS, secures the borders and bans same-sex marriage, news reports said.
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The speech at Liberty University in Lynchberg, Virginia, the world's largest Christian university, courted cultural conservatives and kicked off the 2016 presidential season.
Saying he wanted to "reignite the promise of America," Cruz said: "The answer will not come from Washington. It will come only from the men and women across this country: from people of faith, lovers of liberty, from people who respect the Constitution."
"Instead of a president who boycotts Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, imagine a president who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel," Cruz said. The audience applauded the statement for about 30 seconds. (WATCH below)
Last year Cruz received a very different response to praise for Israel, getting booed off the stage during a gala event in Washington for persecuted Middle Eastern Christians.
Cruz was one of several Republican leaders who called Netanyahu after the March 17 Israeli election to congratulate him on his victory. Cruz said Netanyahu is an "extraordinary leader," adding that he won despite efforts by "Obama's political team" to undermine him.
One of several Republican hopefuls to rise from the Tea Party movement, Cruz spoke at Liberty University, the college founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, hours after a wee-hours tweet announcing his White House bid. The choice of venue was meant as a marker against potential rivals who are also counting on Christian conservatives to fuel their candidacies.
Cruz addressed his religious faith, his father's Cuban roots and his unquestioned conservative credentials, saying "for so many Americans the promise of America seems more and more distant."
And he asked the enthusiastic crowd to "imagine a president that finally, finally, finally secures the borders."
"Imagine a simple flat tax," he said. "Imagine abolishing the IRS."
Cruz, 44, would be the first Hispanic in the White House if he won the November 2016 election.
He has built a reputation as an unyielding advocate for conservative principles in his two years in the U.S. Senate, making enemies in both parties on Capitol Hill even as he has become a hero to the grassroots Tea Party movement.
He pushed his party to force a 16-day government shutdown in 2013 in an unsuccessful effort to deny funding to President Barack Obama's healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act. He led a similar effort this year, also unsuccessful, to block Obama's effort to remove the threat of deportation for some undocumented immigrants.
More than a dozen potential presidential candidates are already courting donors and voters in states like Iowa and New Hampshire that vote early in next year's primary season.
As the lone official candidate, Cruz will get extra attention from the media and voters for several weeks.
Cruz was supported by 8 percent of self-identified Republicans in a Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush leads the poll with 21 percent and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker ranks second with 16 percent.
Several other potential candidates are statistically tied with Cruz, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
The Democratic field is shaping up to be far leaner. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has yet to declare her candidacy but is viewed as the front-runner for her party's nomination.