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By Maria Recio and David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) will announce his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination Monday, starting an uphill quest for a young newcomer to elective politics with a knack for picking high-profile battles but a short record of success so far.

Cruz, 44, will jump into the race just two years after being elected to office for the first time, a sign of the eagerness to take on more established Republicans that has marked his short career in politics and in the Senate.

His entry will be the first of a field that is expected to include former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Cruz’s fellow Texan, former Governor Rick Perry.

Cruz is a skillful speaker and one of the biggest audience-pleasers in the Republican field. But the cheers in preliminary appearances in early voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina so far have rarely translated into tangible support. His Tea Party base is warming to Walker, and growing numbers of conservatives are seeking someone who would be more likely to win a general election against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In a McClatchy-Marist poll this month, Walker had the support of about one-fourth of the “very conservative” Republicans and one-fourth of Tea Party supporters. Cruz was backed by 3 percent of each group, far behind other contenders.

Cruz also was the weakest rival to Clinton out of five tested, the survey found.

Even in Texas, Republicans have warmed to Walker at the expense of Cruz. After trailing Cruz by 25 points among Texas Republicans, Walker now is within a point, according to one recent survey.

Cruz will skip Texas as a backdrop for his announcement, traveling instead to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The choice of the private Christian school in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains suggested Cruz’s plan to play to not only the right but to the evangelical wing of the Republican Party.

“He is trying to nail down as much of the base as he can as early as possible and steal a march on others who might try to claim the base,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

The school was founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, an influential leader of the Christian Right who helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, and whose school has been a popular venue for Republicans seeking to reach out to social conservatives and Christian voters.

The Tea Party vaulted Cruz, a political novice who had never held elective office, to the U. S. Senate seat in 2012. He had attracted attention as Texas solicitor general, an appointed position, and took on the state’s Republican establishment by challenging Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, Perry’s choice.

After his surprise victory in a primary run-off election, Cruz continued to endear himself to the far right soon after coming to the Senate with a 21-hour floor speech against the Affordable Care Act that helped force a partial federal government shutdown. The gambit did not succeed in forcing repeal or weakening the health care law.

While Tea Party leaders still like Cruz, they’re also looking elsewhere for 2016. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, regarded as a new voice and a Washington outsider, has drawn a passionate following, particularly in Iowa. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucus, retains a loyal conservative following.

Walker so far has pulled ahead of everyone, and held a telephone town hall last week with followers of one group, the Tea Party Patriots.

Afterward, the group said on its website “there is perhaps no one the left fears more than this accomplished Midwestern governor, as Walker is proof that leaders don’t have to ‘shift to the middle to win the middle.”

Tea Party supporters make up about one-third of the vote in the Iowa Republican caucus, the nation’s first electoral test.

But Walker has had some stumbles and the door is still open for Cruz and other candidates. None of the three top-tier Republicans at this point, Walker, Bush and Rubio, draw more than 19 percent support nationwide. Cruz, a champion debater at Princeton University, could shine when Republicans begin monthly debates in August.

Cruz has a lot of goodwill among conservatives. A Quinnipiac University Iowa poll last month found 46 percent of Republicans viewed him favorably and 19 percent unfavorably. And two-thirds of tea party supporters and 55 percent of white evangelicals see him favorably.

Bush is seen unfavorably by 40 percent.

With his announcement Monday, Cruz will have the media attention, but only for a short time. Paul is expected to announce April 7 and other candidates are lining up, as well. Perry, who had a dismal 2012 presidential campaign, has said that he will decide by May or June.

UPDATE: Cruz announced his candidacy via Twitter on Sunday night.

Photo: U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

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