LYNCHBURG, Virginia — Casting himself as the leader of a grassroots army, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz made an explicit appeal to Christian conservatives Monday as he became the first major figure to jump into the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

Cruz’s unyielding tactics in Washington have made him a hero to many on the Tea Party right and a thorn in the side of the Republican establishment. Seeking to break into the front ranks of candidates, the 44-year-old solicited the support of born-again Christians who play a major role in states with early nominating contests.

Speaking at Liberty University, a Christian school founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell, Cruz discussed his Baptist faith in personal terms and urged religious conservatives who have sat out recent elections to get off the sidelines.

“God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet,” he said, urging the crowd to imagine millions of people of faith going to the polls and “voting our values.”

Cruz’s prominent role in the 2013 government shutdown made him one of the better-known politicians in America even as he made enemies in both parties on Capitol Hill. In a 21-hour talkathon on the Senate floor, he chided the “cheap suits” and “bad haircuts” of some politicians and read the children’s book “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss.

But the Harvard-educated son of a Cuban immigrant starts the race for the November 2016 election as a second-tier candidate.

Cruz came in third in an informal poll of activists last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and Reuters/Ipsos tracking polls show him statistically tied with five other potential candidates, though well behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

As the first to jump into the race, Cruz will get extra attention from the media and voters for several weeks as he tries to position himself as the conservative alternative to more centrist candidates such as Bush and Walker.

Supporters aim to raise up to $50 million in the primary season, though his prominent role in the 2013 government shutdown could cost him support on Wall Street and in the business world.

“The Republican Party and the American people have to be able to find a more qualified candidate for president than Ted Cruz,” said Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, who also called Cruz a “carnival barker.”

Cruz is likely to do well with small donors and wealthy Texans, said Atlanta fund manager David Panton, who has known Cruz since college.

“A lot of people wait to write the check until Ted has formally announced,” he said.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. said many evangelicals have sat out recent elections because of their disappointment with the more centrist candidates that have won the party’s nomination. About 40 percent of Republican primary voters consider themselves evangelical or born again, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.

“If someone could mobilize that bloc, it would be amazing,” Falwell told Reuters.

That could help Cruz in early-voting states such as Iowa, where 57 percent of Republican caucus-goers identified as evangelical or born-again Christians in 2012.

Cruz will likely have to compete for their support with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won in 2008.

“If he’s the nominee, I absolutely, positively could back him 100 percent. But there are multiple good people running out there,” said Barb Heki, a Christian conservative who has been active in Iowa Republican politics for 30 years.

Speaking without notes, Cruz employed the cadence of a preacher as he described the religious journey of his father, who left the family when Cruz was 3 years old but returned after joining a Baptist church.

“If not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ, I would have been … raised by a single mom without my father in the house,” Cruz said.

Five years after President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, Cruz called for its repeal, as well as abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and blocking same-sex marriage.

He cast divisive social issues in religious terms, referring to the “sacrament of marriage” and the “sanctity of human life.”

Cruz drew some of his strongest applause Monday when he accused Obama of playing down the religious elements of Islamic State and fostering conflict with Israel, an important issue for evangelicals.

Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said wealthy Jewish donors were also impressed with Cruz after hearing him speak about Israel at a November dinner.

“The only issue was, could this guy really win?” he said. “Did anybody think Barack Obama could win when he was running? No.”

Cruz’s birth in Calgary, Alberta, has raised questions about his eligibility for the White House. The U.S. Constitution requires that the president be a natural-born citizen. He gave up his Canadian citizenship in 2014.

Cruz has said he qualifies by virtue of his mother having been an American citizen by birth.