Will grassroots support be enough for Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016?

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, doesn't have a lot of friends in Washington, and he's proud of it.

"Politics, it ain't beanbag," the freshman firebrand told ABC in 2013, after sustaining heavy criticism from fellow Republicans for his starring role in that year's government shutdown. "I'm not serving in office because I desperately needed 99 new friends in the U.S. Senate."

The shutdown episode, which saw Cruz successfully urge conservatives in both chambers to defy GOP leadership by refusing to back any government spending bill that funded Obamacare, became emblematic of Cruz's time on Capitol Hill. From the moment the conservative firebrand arrived in Washington in 2013, he's feuded with Democrats and Republicans alike, championing a pugnacious brand of conservatism - and a make-no-concessions legislative strategy - that's made him as revered among right-wing activists as he is reviled by parts of the party establishment.

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As he eyes a 2016 presidential bid, Cruz is prepared to bring that defiant posture on the campaign trail. He's stepped up his travel to early voting states, visiting both Iowa and New Hampshire within the last two weeks. During public appearances, he's championed an uncompromising stance on every issue animating the conservative base.

Cruz's down-the-line appeal to the GOP base may prove to be his calling card in the primary battle to come, but it's also led him to pick fights with the party brass that could ultimately undermine his candidacy. His ability to raise money, secure endorsements, and build the kind of infrastructure necessary to win a national primary may be hampered by his lack of support among the establishment. And his ideological rigidity has sown doubts among some Republicans about how competitive Cruz would be in a general election.

Thus far, he's aggressively scorned questions about electability, turning them back on the GOP "graybeards" who pose them rather than defending his own approach to governance. Pointing to losses by 2008 nominee Sen. John McCain and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, Cruz has urged the GOP to nominate a strong conservative or risk defeat for the third consecutive time.

"If we nominate a candidate in that mold, the same people who stayed home in 2008 and 2012 will stay home in 2016 and the Democrats will win again," Cruz told a South Carolina tea party convention in January.

The implicit message was clear: Don't settle for another losing squish -- nominate me, and I can win. The unresolved question is whether Republican voters will buy it.

If he runs, he'll have to hope "the grassroots is stronger than the party infrastructure," Texas-based GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak told CBS News. "That's going to be the issue."

Who is Ted Cruz?

Rafael Edward (Ted) Cruz was born December 22, 1970 in Calgary, Canada. Though some have raised questions about whether his foreign birth would preclude him from running for president, most analysts believe he's eligible -- he was a U.S. citizen at the time of his birth because his mom was born in the U.S. In a curious twist, his birthplace also made him a natural-born Canadian citizen, but Cruz renounced his Canadian citizenship last year.

While Cruz's mother Eleanor grew up in Delaware, Cruz's father Rafael is a naturalized Cuban-American who fled Cuba in 1957 during the rise of communism under Fidel Castro. Cruz is the first Latino to represent Texas in the Senate, and one of three Latinos currently serving in the upper chamber.

His family moved in 1974 to Texas, where Cruz spent the rest of his childhood. He graduated valedictorian of his high school in 1988, attended Princeton University for his undergraduate studies, and received his law degree from Harvard University. After Harvard, he clerked for federal judge Michael Luttig and then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist.

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After a stint in private practice, Cruz began advising then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush on domestic policy during the 2000 presidential campaign. He met his wife Heidi on the campaign, and the two married before the race was over. They have two daughters.

When Bush was elected, Cruz joined the Justice Department. In 2003, he was appointed the solicitor general of Texas. During the five years he held that post, he argued nine cases before the Supreme Court.

In 2012, Cruz ran for the U.S. Senate, taking on Texas's then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a primary. Cruz began the race as a longshot, but he forced Dewhurst into runoff, painting the frontrunner as insufficiently conservative. He ultimately rode a tea party wave to win the Republican nomination, becoming a sensation among the conservative grassroots virtually overnight.

"He caught lightning in a bottle, but I don't think it was luck, I think he worked tirelessly," Mackowiak said of Cruz's primary victory, which was described by some observers as the biggest primary upset of the cycle. He easily won the general election in November.

Why some conservatives love him

If Cruz's victory in 2010 put him in the good graces of the tea party, his record in the Senate has kept him there. He's adopted a firmly conservative line on every hot-button issue that's come before Congress in his few years in Washington.

Cruz has said he wants to repeal "every word" of President Obama's health care reform law, and he's played a vocal role in congressional attempts to dismantle the law. In September 2013, he spoke for 21 hours on the floor of the Senate in opposition to Obamacare, staging an informal filibuster to urge Republicans not to support a government funding bill that included money for the health care law. Cruz's intervention was blamed, in part, for the 16-day government shutdown that resulted after the dispute over Obamacare temporarily blocked a spending agreement.

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In 2013, Cruz voted against a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, criticizing the plan as "amnesty" for lawbreakers and dinging the Senate Republicans who supported it. (Some of those senators, like Florida's Marco Rubio and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, are also eyeing presidential bids in 2016.) Cruz has aggressively criticized President Obama's executive action to offer deportation relief to millions of immigrants by offering them work permits, labeling it unconstitutional.

He also played a high-profile role in the successful fight against a 2013 proposal that would have strengthened the background check system for gun buyers by extending it to guns purchased online or at a gun show. That plan, proposed in the aftermath of the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, enjoyed a degree of bipartisan support, but it was ultimately felled by conservative opposition.

On those issues and many more, Cruz's strategy has been to preach to the choir. And thus far, at least, the choir is eating it up.

"He has in very short order built a passionate national fanbase, and impressed a lot of conservatives nationwide as a smart and principled advocate for their causes," said Ramesh Ponnuru, a conservative analyst and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who's been friends with Cruz since college. "He has a strong potential appeal, particularly to the very conservative voters who are disproportionately active in the republican presidential primaries."

"He hasn't really moved to the middle on any major issues," said Mackowiak. "He probably is the favorite among the grassroots, because he is a really solid conservative on all three legs of the stool - social, fiscal, and national security. No one speaks to the concerns of the grassroots with greater effect than Ted Cruz. He's the whole package."

Cruz's success may be due not only to what he says, but how he says it. While some of his potential rivals have struggled with the theatrics and presentation of political stagecraft, Cruz, a former champion debater at Princeton, carries himself with the ease and fluency of a natural political animal. At conservative summits and campaign events, Cruz paces the stage like a televangelist, telling seemingly spontaneous jokes and speaking emphatically while other Republicans grip the podium and recite nervously from a teleprompter.

"If you look at raw political skills and talent, Cruz is as talented as anyone -- off the charts brilliant, he's able to fire up a crowd, he has a loyal army of supporters, volunteers, and activists," Mackowiak said. "I think he's a bit of an undervalued stock right now."

"What has been appealing to a lot of conservatives about Ted is the combination of uncompromising conservative principle with intelligence and articulacy," added Ponnuru. "Because conservatives often feel as though Republicans lack one or the other of those qualities -- and sometimes both -- and therefore, that there's nobody out there who is making the case for conservatism in a compelling way."

Why his establishment foes will matter in 2016

Cruz often dismisses his critics within the GOP by saying he didn't enter politics to schmooze with the Washington political class. "He's just never believed that going along to get along is the way to get ahead," explained Mackowiak. "I don't think Cruz sees himself as a long-term United States senator, and if you don't care about climbing the ladder, then it frees you up. He doesn't see winning the affection of his colleagues as the measure of whether he's successful or not."

But it's not just a superficial popularity contest Cruz is spurning -- it's also the money, endorsements, and visibility that come with it. Cruz's lack of friends in Washington may be a point of pride he's eager to tout on the campaign trail, but it will undoubtedly make the mechanics of mounting a competitive bid more difficult.

"There are questions about how much money he can raise, and about the breadth of his appeal, since he also has no shortage of opponents inside the party," said Ponnuru.

"Will Cruz have the endorsement of a large number of U.S. senators? Probably not," said Mackowiak. "Typically, if you're a senator running for president, you want the help of colleagues who can help you raise money nationally and raise your visibility."

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Mackowiak argued that Cruz is in better standing with his Republican colleagues than he was in the wake of the 2013 shutdown, and Ponnuru echoed that point. "It's probably true that as the memories of the shutdown have receded, some of the immediate bitterness has gone away too," he said. "But he has said many times that he did not come to Washington DC to make friends."

But Mackowiak said Cruz can still count on "significant pushback" from the establishment if he runs for president, and he predicted that the Texas senator will receive more "friendly fire" than anyone else in the GOP lineup.

"I think that's a product of two things," he explained. "One, the lack of strong relationships inside the party based on his conduct in the Senate, and second, an honest and deep fear among some that he cannot win."

In an age of democratized fundraising, though, it's not clear the opposition of the establishment is the dispositive force in Republican primaries that it once was. Cruz may be counting on a grassroots influx of small-dollar donations to offset weaker support among the GOP's donor class.

"Cruz is clearly acting on the theory that politics has changed, and the importance of establishment gatekeepers has waned, and so he can raise small donations over the internet and the endorsements of the political establishment just don't matter," Ponnuru argued.

But the biggest threat to his Cruz's bid may ultimately come not from an establishment favorite like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who's locked down many of the GOP's big moneymen, but from conservative rivals who won't readily cede the mantle of grassroots favorite.

"There are others who can compete - Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson, Scott Walker," said Mackowiak. "The question for Cruz is whether he'll be the first choice of voters in those early states."

If another conservative steals Cruz's thunder among the activist set, or if the grassroots vote splinters among several conservative candidates, allowing an establishment candidate to squeak by, it's game over for Cruz's 2016 bid.

"Since 1984, nobody on the right end of the party has won the GOP presidential nomination. A large part of that reason is it is very hard to unite the rightward half or two-thirds of the GOP behind one candidate," said Ponnuru. "I think that Senator Cruz has to unite the right at some point to win the nomination."