MECHANICSVILLE, Va. (AP) — In Ted Cruz's campaign world, it's Santa who tells people what he wants for Christmas: Their valuable voter contact information.
Cruz is on an eight-state, 12-city "Christmas Tour," and at each stop, the campaign plans to have Santa Claus on hand — posing for pictures and kissing babies. But to see him, they'll have to enter their name, email and zip code into the campaign's website. It's a gift that keeps on giving for the Cruz campaign, as they build a voter database to gauge their message, and garner donations and pleas for support.
"It's a great way to make sure we're reaching out and touching as many people as possible," said Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier.
Frazier said the campaign recognized it needed to maximize voter contacts after an August bus tour of southern states where about 19,000 people showed up, but from which they got information for only 14,000. About 1,300 people signed up to attend the Mechanicsville event, the campaign said, many of them with young children in tow.
On the heels of his newfound lead in a key Iowa poll ahead of the Feb. 1 caucus, Cruz's aggressive holiday tour comes as many cite his recent gains nationwide — although still falling short to GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
Katherine Schupe brought her two sons, 4-year-old Jonathan and 18-month-old Harrison, to see both Santa and Cruz in Mechanicsville on Friday.
"Say Ted Cruz!" she said, as her children waved mini American flags while sitting on Santa's lap next to a Christmas tree, wreath and red poinsettia.
"That was definitely a good perk there," Schupe said, holding a card with the website details where she can view the picture later. "He's a great-looking Santa."
Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe first developed the campaigning Santa idea. When he pitched it the week before the tour, "everyone was just kind of silent," Frazier said.
The Texas senator's campaign has hired Santas for each city in its tour, after initially considering and then rejecting the idea of having Cruz's gray-bearded political director, Mark Campbell, take on the role.
The effort is in line with the campaign's focus on collecting detailed information about their current and potential supporters, a strategy in line with Barack Obama's hugely-popular approach to his 2008 run for president — one that others have been attempting to duplicate with varying degrees of success.
Santa also made an appearance Thursday night in St. Paul, Minn., where he sat next to a Christmas tree, in front of a fireplace. That Santa was a Cruz supporter and filled the role for free, Frazier said.
The Virginia Santa, Mechanicsville resident Robin Hood — his real name — joined Cruz at a news conference before his rally. "We want to see which reporters have been naughty and which have been nice," Cruz joked with the media.
Despite having Santa on hand to lighten up the mood, Cruz was on message, addressing the overwhelmingly approval of a massive 2016 tax and spending package in Congress Friday — a proposal he is staunchly against. Cruz told journalists that the bipartisan budget deal was a "betrayal of the men and women who elected us."
A staunch conservative, Cruz said his stance on things like this budget deal endear him to his supporters, are fueling his rise and generating attacks from within his party. Fellow Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, has been hammering Cruz all week after saying, in Tuesday's debate, he never supported legalization for people living in the U.S. illegally, despite having introduced legislation that would have extended legal status to millions.
"Conservatives are uniting behind my campaign and they know if that happens this campaign is over," Cruz asserted.
Hood — the Virginia Santa — meanwhile, was coy about where his political allegiance lies.
"I can't really say," Hood said. "It's another one of those Santa secrets."
Associated Press writer Brian Bakst contributed to this story from St. Paul, Minnesota
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.