LYNCHBURG, Va. — Sen. Ted Cruz had a very captive audience for the official kick off of his presidential campaign.
More than 10,000 students of Liberty University, required to attend a thrice-weekly "convocation" on the campus here or face a $10 fine, listened attentively to Cruz's half-hour long speech, small American flags (provided) in hand.
"It's mandatory, but convo is one of my favorite times of the week just because it's a time for the whole student body to come together and be encouraged by different things," said Anna Nusbaum, 20. "And what other school gets to hear a presidential candidate speak?"
At Liberty, Cruz became the first Republican candidate to announce this presidential cycle. And by announcing at Liberty, the largest Christian university in the country founded by Jerry Falwell, Cruz's message was clear: he wants to be seen as the most socially conservative candidate in the field.
And following the speech, students that BuzzFeed News talked to weren't interested in talking about other contenders for the social conservative vote, like Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, or Ben Carson — or their relative merits next to the Texas senator.
Instead, the reception for Cruz was largely warm: Cruz hit conservative applause line after conservative applause line.
"Instead of a federal government that works to undermine our values, imagine a federal government that works to defend the sanctity of human life and to uphold the sacrament of marriage," he said. "Instead of a government that works to undermine our Second Amendment rights, that seeks to ban our ammunition, imagine a federal government that protects the right to keep and bear arms of all law-abiding American."
There were also overtures directed specifically at the younger crowd, although this is not an average college. Patrick Finn, a 24-year-old senior in the audience, said he was looking forward to how Cruz's Christian beliefs would "affect his candidacy, and that's key for me."
Not everyone was thrilled to be forced to sit through an inherently political speech. A small group of students, captured several times by C-SPAN cameras, clad in red "Stand with Rand" t-shirts, were eager to chat with reporters after the event about their support for Rand Paul, another potential candidate who will likely announce in the next few weeks.
Though the school's president, Jerry Falwell Jr., told students to not take Cruz's speech as an endorsement on behalf of the school, the Stand with Rand crew only saw it as such.
"We were upset about it. All students who live on campus, so over 7,000 are required to attend or have a $10 fine," said Eli McGowan, a 20-year-old junior who heads "Students for Rand" on campus. "We know that Ted Cruz knows this and it's a smart idea to have a captive audience to announce your campaign. To have 10,000 people show up. Most students take this a tacit endorsement. People on Facebook have been saying oh the board wouldn't have allowed him to come if they didn't think he was the right candidate."
McGowan's wife, Emily, also in a "Stand with Rand" shirt, called Cruz a "good Christian man" but it was his views on military intervention that made her support Paul.
"Rand stands for the more libertarian ideals and really speaks to this generation," she said. "We do need conservatives to make changes but we need someone to appeal to all walks of life and that's what libertarianism does."
Eli McGowan ticked off the typical libertarian list of reasons why he thought Rand could appeal to a younger generation: decriminalization of certain drugs, a level of non-interventionism, overcrowding in prisons.
One woman, a senior who asked not to be identified because she was a Democrat, said that the university was endorsing Cruz whether they said they were or not.
"At our school everyone is a Republican. You aren't allowed to have any Democratic groups," she said. "That's why I'm doing this anonymously because people will come after you. He told people what they wanted to hear and they are endorsing him, that's what they are doing."
Kate Nocera is the DC Bureau Chief for BuzzFeed’s Washington, DC bureau. Nocera is a recipient of the National Press Foundation's 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting on Congress.
Contact Kate Nocera at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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