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Some Michiganians got a close look at U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz when he made a quiet swing though Michigan last summer, but it’s difficult to assess the Texas Republican’s presidential chances in the state.

The 44-year-old Cruz, who Monday became the first GOP hopeful to announce his candidacy for the nation’s top office in 2016, has an enthusiastic online following but no formal Michigan political organization, according to former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis.

“I’m sure there are supporters,” said Anuzis, who counts himself among them. “There are at least two Michigan for Cruz Facebook pages with hundreds of supporters.”

Cruz announced his candidacy just after midnight Monday on Twitter. In an accompanying video, the tea party favorite made clear his message.

“I believe in America and her people, and I believe we can stand up and restore our promise,” Cruz said in the web video filled with images of a farm field, a church, city skylines and American landmarks. “It's going to take a new generation of courageous conservatives to help make America great again, and I'm ready to stand with you to lead the fight.”

Anuzis said Cruz — who made his formal announcement before an enthusiastic crowd at Liberty University, a Christian college in Lynchburg,Virginia —“is in a unique position to appeal to Michigan’s Reagan Democrats.”

“Folks are frustrated with both parties and are looking for a courageous conservative who shares their values,” he added. “Cruz appeals to traditional conservatives, Christians, tea party and liberty Republicans.”

But other contenders, notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have been more visible in Michigan and are seen by some political experts as more viable in a state that consistently leans Democratic in presidential years.

Bush polished his more centrist credentials with a round of appearances in October in support of Gov. Rick Snyder, successful U.S. House candidate John Moolenaar of Midland and the rest of the GOP ticket. He was back here in early February to outline his vision for “a right to rise society”in a Detroit Economic Club speech seen by many as the start of a presidential bid.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is planning to make a campaign announcement by April. The libertarian-leaning Paul has campaigned in Michigan at least twice in the past two years, helped the Michigan GOP open a Detroit office and emphasized reaching out to African-American voters.

The Oakland County Republican Party recently announced that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will be the keynote speaker at its 126th Annual Lincoln Day Dinner on May 4. Walker is considered a leading Republican contender for president in 2016.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who campaigned and raised funds for Snyder, is scheduled to be the keynote speaker Friday at the Macomb County Republican Party Lincoln Dinner fundraiser in Shelby Township. His prospects have slipped in recent weeks after a trip to London.

Cruz was in the state last summer campaigning in support of Republican fundraiser and former party chairman Ron Weiser’s run for the University of Michigan Board of Regents before the GOP state convention. His unannounced and under-the-radar swing through the state included a speech in Lansing at a pastors’ convention attended by his father, Rafael, a clergyman.

Former Michigan Rep. Tom McMillin of Rochester Hills, who calls himself a constitutional conservative, rates Cruz “better than a long shot” but says the Texan is trailing others who have more of a presence in here.

“He’s probably fourth in Michigan, behind Walker, Bush (unfortunately) and Rand Paul — but not a distant fourth,” said McMillin, the 8th Congressional District GOP chairman. “I'd say he’s got good tea party and conservative fans, but so do Walker and Rand (Paul).”

Democratic public relations consultant T.J. Bucholz doesn’t see Cruz as a serious candidate in Michigan, where the primary will be held on March 8. He sees Monday’s announcement as more of an effort at initial nationwide messaging and name identification.

“The tea party is looking for a serious candidate to coalesce around, and that could be him,” said Bucholz, who added that the Harvard-educated and hawkish Cruz has some of the chops tea party members might like but not enough appeal to moderates to attract a broader coalition in Michigan. His message resonates more with conservatives in the West, deep South and Texas, he said.

“His chances of emerging from a primary campaign in Michigan as the winner are about as good as me emerging from a Republican primary as the winner,” Bucholz said. “He has nothing on the ground here. I think this is just a publicity play for Sen. Cruz, perhaps for something farther down the road — a future presidential campaign, maybe.”

Susan Demas, publisher and editor of Inside Michigan Politics, agrees it is an effort to gain publicity by being the first Republican to announce a presidential campaign.

“I think Cruz jumped in to show he’s serious and make a play for donors,” Demas said. “He's also seen that (former Arkansas Gov.) Mike Huckabee is polling well with the social conservative base, which Cruz desperately needs to compete. His announcement today is a calculation that he needed the attention that being the first official candidate brings in order to really make a go of this.”

gheinlein@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

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