LYNCHBURG, Va. — Sen. Ted Cruz jumped into the 2016 presidential race Monday in the same way he intends to run his campaign: upstaging rival Republican candidates with a splashy, impassioned speech that sought to drag the national conversation farther to the right than many in his own party want to go.

The Texas senator’s chances of winning the White House are narrow, polls suggest. And his aggressive tactics and brash style during two years in the Senate – including nudging his party toward the 2013 government shutdown – have alienated many of the Republican leaders whose support he needs if he wants to become the nominee.

But in addition to raising his own political profile, Cruz’s candidacy is certain to play a key role in the Republican primary as spoiler and potential kingmaker, forcing establishment favorites, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, to confront tea party preferences on immigration, gay marriage and social welfare programs.

Cruz’s zeal for small government and a muscular national defense reflect the views of many Republicans. But strategists acknowledge the divisive firebrand may drive the debate too far to the right for mainstream political tastes – just as he has done during his short time in Congress. That would force his 2016 opponents to embrace positions in the primary that they may later regret when facing the Democratic nominee.

“He’s going to raise important questions that other candidates are going to have to answer, especially on social issues,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “Are you pro-life? Pro-marriage? Ted Cruz has been very bold and he sort of puts pressure on people like Jeb and Rand (Paul) to speak about the issues.”

But Aguilar warned that Cruz’s stances, such as his opposition to President Obama’s program to defer deportation for millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, could also alienate voters in the general election if embraced by other candidates.

The son of a Cuban immigrant, Cruz makes no apologies for his goal to shake up the mainstream. He has said repeatedly in recent weeks that he wants to be seen as the “disruptive app” of Republican politics.

“It is the time for truth,” Cruz told an enthusiastic crowd of Liberty University students Monday. “It is the time for liberty. It is the time to reclaim the Constitution of the United States.”

It was no accident that he chose to launch his long-anticipated presidential bid at the religious campus founded by the late pastor Jerry Falwell. Not far from the historic Civil War site of Appomattox, Liberty University has been a popular destination for Republican candidates seeking to bolster their conservative credentials. It also boasts a vast alumni and donor network that extends far from the campus, nestled near the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains.

Cruz appeared on stage in the school’s massive sports arena – and on the jumbo-screen overhead – amid waving American flags and Christian rock music. He emphasized his family’s personal struggles and Christian faith, calling on “courageous conservatives” to join him as he seeks to ignite the same grass-roots movement that propelled him to the Senate in 2012.

“The answer will not come from Washington,” he said. “It will come only from men and women across this country, the people of faith, the lovers of liberty.”

Although student attendance was mandatory, the young audience appeared receptive to his repeated calls to “imagine” a president who would repeal Obama’s health care law, reverse the president’s recent immigration ?actions, shutter the Internal Revenue Service and champion a small-government, socially conservative agenda. When he finished, he was joined on stage by his wife, Heidi, and their two young daughters.

Critical to his underdog campaign will be Cruz’s ability to court and energize this new generation of young evangelicals and social conservatives, not unlike former Sen. Barack Obama did with young progressives in 2008.

Tapping into millennial culture, Cruz tweeted his announcement early Monday, then asked the students in the arena to text his campaign – a strategy for building a database of potential supporters that was also reminiscent of Obama’s tech-savvy presidential run. Many students obliged.

“Seeing the values he has, for his country, his family, he’s a great candidate,” said 18-year-old Justin Taubensee, who said he was seriously considering casting his first presidential primary election vote for the senator.

Whether that message resonates with all Americans has yet to be seen. The Texas senator trails both Bush and Walker in the most recent CNN poll.

Cruz became the first major candidate to declare his candidacy for 2016, though others are certain to follow in the coming weeks in what is expected to be a crowded Republican primary field. His strategists hope the head start will provide an edge in drawing media attention and donations.

“This is a chance to consolidate the conservative movement,” said one senior adviser, granted anonymity to discuss the campaign, which decided to forgo the traditional exploratory committee and jump straight into the race.

Cruz expects to announce he will have more than $1 million on hand by the end of the month, and plans to raise $40 million to $50 million for the primary campaign.

As a less-seasoned politician, Cruz faces risks in launching a presidential bid just two years after taking his first elective office. Presidential campaigns are bruising contests that rarely leave candidates unscathed. A poor showing in the early primaries could damage Cruz’s brand. Previous aspirants like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry learned in 2012 that high-profile stumbles on the national stage can be career-damaging.

“This is the thing all candidates risk: rejection,” said David Winston, a veteran Republican pollster and strategist unaffiliated with any of the potential candidates.

Cruz is perhaps best known for his fight against Obama’s health care law, which led to the 2013 federal government shutdown and boosted him as a conservative favorite. That renegade approach excites the party’s most ardent activists, but it has increasingly pained Republican Party leaders and turned Cruz into an outsider on Capitol Hill.

The shutdown hurt the image of the Republican Party overall, but it helped Cruz, at least among his core supporters. A Pew Research Center survey showed his standing soared among Republicans who identify with the tea party during the government shutdown. At the same time, public approval ratings for the Republicans sank to new lows.

Democrats portray Cruz as an extremist.

“As the de facto leader of the Republican Party in recent years, it is only fitting that Ted Cruz would position himself in front of the GOP’s 2016 presidential field,” said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. “His reckless approach to governing would make life worse, not better, for Americans and he isn’t the type of fighter that America’s middle-class families need.”

As a freshman senator and tea party favorite, the Harvard-educated Cruz, 44, pulled off a stunning victory in 2012 when he toppled an establishment-backed Republican to win the party nomination for the Senate seat from Texas.

Because he was born in Canada to an American mother, questions have been raised on whether Cruz is eligible for the presidency. Cruz has argued that he fulfills the requirement because his mother was U.S. citizen. The Constitution requires the president to be a “natural born” citizen.

Cruz’s advisers envision a path to the presidential nomination that continues to draw those tea party voters who backed his first campaign while also peeling away libertarian support from another tea party favorite, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and attracting evangelical conservatives from more overtly religious candidates.

Such a coalition could form the foundation of what Cruz’s team hopes will put him in second place – poised to confront the establishment-backed front-runner, whether that’s Bush or Walker.

With Paul expected to announce his own run soon, possibly at a rally in early April in Kentucky, Cruz’s advisers acknowledge that they have work to do introducing their candidate to a broader audience. But for the next few days at least, Cruz appears to have the stage he wants – to himself.