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By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Senator Ted Cruz debuted his 2016 presidential ambitions before an enthusiastic crowd at Virginia’s Liberty University on Monday, courting the young evangelicals and social conservatives who will be critical to his underdog campaign.

The Texas senator has trailed more established Republicans in early polling and fundraising expectations for what is expected to be a crowded primary field, but Cruz’s unwavering brand of conservatism promises to be a force in the conversation that will shape the Republican Party’s future.

He spoke Monday morning to students gathered in a giant sports arena for morning convocation at the religious campus founded by the late pastor Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va. Amid waving American flags and Christian rock music, Cruz emphasized his family’s personal struggles and Christian faith.

“Today I am announcing that I’m running for president of the United States,” Cruz told the crowd. “It is the time for truth. It is the time for liberty. It is the time to reclaim the constitution of the United States.”

The college sports arena roared with approval, and even though student attendance was mandatory, the young people appeared receptive to his calls to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, stop his immigration actions and otherwise champion a small-government socially conservative agenda.

Cruz called on “courageous conservatives” to join him, and sought to ignite the grass roots that first propelled him to office. “The answer will not come from Washington. It will come only from men and women across this country, the people of faith, the lovers of liberty,” he said.

Not far from the historic Civil War site of Appomattox, Liberty has been a popular destination for Republican candidates seeking to bolster their conservatives credentials.

The school’s president, the founder’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., noted that Cruz had visited before and returned to for this “historic” moment.

In a Twitter message earlier Monday, Cruz became the first GOP candidate to formally announce his candidacy, giving him a head start in rallying support and donations.

Cruz is perhaps best known for his fight against Obama’s health care law, which led to the 2013 federal government shutdown and boosted him as a conservative favorite.

That renegade approach excites the party’s most ardent activists, but it has increasingly pained Republican Party leaders and turned Cruz into an outsider even among his conservative peers.

Republican strategists worry the senator’s entry into the presidential race, like his short time in Congress, will push the party too far to the right for mainstream political tastes.

Cruz’s early announcement makes him just the kind of “disruptive app” he has said he intends to be in politics, seeking to shake up business as usual.

With Jeb Bush and Scott Walker already pulling ahead of the pack of potential Republican candidates even before making their expected campaigns official, Cruz’s move commands attention — and offers a boost of media exposure.

“Why not be first?” said one senior adviser, granted anonymity to discuss the campaign, which decided to forgo the traditional exploratory committee and jump straight into the race. “You’re either ready to run or you’re not.”

A Tea Party favorite, Cruz, 44, pulled off a stunning victory in 2012 when he toppled an establishment-backed Republican to win the party nomination for the Senate seat from Texas. It was the Harvard-educated lawyer’s first elected position.

The son of a Cuban immigrant, Cruz’s zeal for small-government and a muscular national defense reflect the views of many Republicans. But his tactics — the shutdown strategy emerged his first year in office — have not endeared him to the party he now wants to lead.

Cruz’s advisers envision a path for him to the presidential nomination that continues to draw those Tea Party voters who backed his first campaign while also peeling away libertarian support from another Tea Party favorite, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and attracting evangelical conservatives from more overtly religious candidates.

Such a coalition could form the foundation of what Cruz’s team hopes will put him in the No. 2 slot — poised to confront the establishment-backed front-runner, whether that’s Bush, the former Florida governor, or Walker, the Wisconsin governor.

Announcing his bid at one of the nation’s largest Christian colleges, which has a vast alumni and donor network that extends far from the campus nestled near the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, could prove invaluable to Cruz’s effort.

Last week, the Liberty University students heard during convocation from Trey Gowdy, the Republican congressman leading the investigation into the private email account used by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is expected to run for president on the Democratic side.

Cruz expects to raise $40 million to $50 million for the primary effort, and he was headed to New York City later Monday with a return trip at the end of the week to New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary.

Because he was born in Canada to an American mother, questions have been raised if Cruz is eligible for the presidency. But Cruz has argued he fulfills the requirement because his mother was U.S. citizen.

Photo: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) speaks at the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, in National Harbor, Md. Cruz announced his presidential bid Monday. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

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