FRANKLIN, Tenn. --- Rejecting the conventional wisdom that Republican candidates must move toward the middle to win a general election, Sen. Ted Cruz is betting that his unapologetically conservative campaign will galvanize voters in 2016.
Already, his rallies are drawing standing-room-only crowds in southern states, and his campaign credits grassroots support for a surge in donations over the last few days - pointing to more than $1,000,000 raised since Thursday's primetime debate.
"If we're going to win, the central question I have is how to bring back to the polls the millions of conservatives who've been staying home," said Cruz, during an interview with NBC News on Monday.
Part of the Texas senator's strategy involves targeting a key group of voters: evangelical Christians, where Cruz sees untapped potential.
"In 2012, 54 million evangelicals stayed home," Cruz said, calling them "the largest single block of conservative voters that are not voting right now."
The Pew Research Center estimates that white evangelical Protestants made up about 23 percent of the national electorate in the 2012 presidential contest.
Cruz is running on a strong anti-abortion platform, frequently reminding his supporters of his history defending religious liberties and talking on the campaign trail openly and often about his faith and his father's conversion to evangelicalism.
During a quiet moment in Tennessee, Cruz bowed his head and wrapped his arms around his wife and two daughters as he prayed at a memorial for victims of the recent shooting in Chattanooga.
The unscheduled stop came as Cruz campaigns through the south on a bus tour that's taking him to seven conservative states, including South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. In a condensed Republican primary season, the campaign hopes to lay early groundwork to generate momentum after ballots are cast in the traditional early-voting states.
Kimberly Farley brought her three children to a rally in Franklin, Tennessee. "I believe that Cruz is a man of integrity," she said. "He has carried out in Washington what he has promised to do."
Cruz is also hoping his conservative fiscal and national security policies will attract another group of voters: Reagan Democrats.
"In the last fifty years, there is one Republican who has a group of Democrats named after him," Cruz explained. "If the Washington fallacy were correct - that you run to the middle to get crossover votes - then you would have Gerald Ford Democrats, or Bob Dole Democrats, or John McCain Democrats or Mitt Romney Democrats. They don't exist."
It was President Reagan who popularized the "Eleventh Commandment:" to "not speak ill" of fellow Republicans. Over the last few weeks, Cruz has notably refused to directly condemn controversial remarks made by Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.
So is the senator making a play for Trump's supporters in the event the billionaire businessman drops out of the race? "We are running a primary where our object is to unify Republicans to bring conservatives together," Cruz said. "So I very much hope that all of Donald Trump's supporters end up supporting us. I hope that all of Jeb Bush's supporters, Marco Rubio's supporters, Scott Walker's supporters, Ben Carson's supporters, and Mike Huckabee's supporters, all of them - we're making a play for them to come over and support us. We've got to come together."