Ted Cruz’s Southern comfort

He’s mired in the middle of the pack in early state polls, but it may not matter. The date circled in red on Ted Cruz’s calendar is March 1, when much of the South will vote in what’s been dubbed the “SEC primary.”

Cruz isn’t writing off Iowa and New Hampshire, but his fallback strategy is centered here in the South, where the reception to his weeklong, seven-state “Cruz Country” bus tour — marked by big, enthusiastic crowds and often rapturous appreciation of his scorched earth, anti-Washington rhetoric — explains why he sees a lane.

At one event in a Nashville suburb Monday, Cruz attracted a crowd of more than 2,000 to an arts center, where he was mobbed after his speech by well-wishers hoping to shake his hand or have him sign copies of his book. The next day, Cruz’s two Mississippi stops drew hundreds of people. At Sweetpea’s Table restaurant here in Olive Branch, the line to get in stretched a block long after the fire marshal locked the doors because the event was at capacity….

…His anti-establishment message and attempts to frame himself as the true conservative standard-bearer found especially receptive audiences in Mississippi, where Republicans are still smarting from one of the nastiest GOP primaries in 2014. Longtime Sen. Thad Cochran’s victory against insurgent conservative Chris McDaniel left deep wounds, and Cruz sent a message to McDaniel’s aggrieved tea party supporters by naming him as his Mississippi state co-chairman. Several voters interviewed said McDaniel’s endorsement further solidifies their support for Cruz.

McDaniel’s name is one on a long list of state chairmen and local leaders that the Cruz campaign has already assembled in the South — an infrastructure Cruz insists must be in place early because, after the first four contests, there will be little time to regroup before March 1.