I first met Ted Cruz nearly a year ago and one of the first questions which came to mind was, “why is this guy running so hard, so early, for a Senate seat?” But it’s not such a crazy idea, apparently. The Texas conservative has been going around the country and building a network of supporters which is crucial to a run in a state of that size. Not missing an opportunity to take the platform before a large, conservative audience, Mr. Cruz apparently brought the house down this weekend at the Value Voters Summit.

Former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz might not be a household name, but the candidate for Senate was cheered heartily at the conservative Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C.

Working without notes and pacing the stage like a preacher, Cruz talked about defending “American values” and said liberals have “a reason to be worried” about the next election.

He got big laughs when he said that President Obama blaming the Tea Party for America’s credit downgrade was “a little bit like Charlie Sheen blaming [his problems] on the Betty Ford clinic.”

That may sound like a throwaway line to a friendly, red meat audience, but it’s precisely that kind of original, unscripted, genuine connection which a speaker makes with an audience that can build a substantial following. It’s comparable to Herman Cain, who many of us gave long odds for a presidential run but is now surging in the polls. It also doesn’t hurt that Texas is getting a lot of attention these days because of Rick Perry’s run, and the two doubtless share more than a few ideas on policy and conservative ideology.

Stacy McCain snagged an interview with Cruz this week, (who he calls “the Marco Rubio of Texas”) which you can see in full here. A short takeaway from the exchange:

McCain: And as some people have compared you to Marco Rubio, as the “Marco Rubio of Texas,” you are yourself also Cuban.

Cruz: Well, that’s right. And that’s an incredibly kind comparison. Marco and I share a very similar personal story, which is that my dad is from Cuba, he was born there, he grew up there, and he was imprisoned and tortured in Cuba as a teenager when he was 17. And he fled Cuba, he came to the United States. When he was 18, he showed up in Austin. Had no money, didn’t speak English, had 100 dollars sewn into his underwear, and he went and got a job as a dishwasher making 50 cents an hour. And he worked 7 days a week and he paid his way through school at the University of Texas. And I’ll tell you, Robert, when I was a kid my dad used to say to me all the time, “when we faced depression in Cuba, I had a place to flee to. If we lose our freedom here, where do we go?” And there’s no question that better explains why it is I’m running for Senate than that question right there.

Cruz may be one of the next generation of “new breed” Republicans making headlines in the 2012 cycle. It’s probably worth your time to check him out.