NEW ORLEANS — Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz didn’t have a plum speaking slot here at the Republican Leadership Conference on Thursday.

He followed one of the most gifted orators in the Republican Party — former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — early in the afternoon of the first day of the conference, when many attendees were still making their way to the event.

But when it comes to getting the audience involved, the emerging tea party favorite and Texas Senate candidate was on-par with the best.

The former Texas solicitor general is still surprising people, but he’s going to stop sneaking up on them pretty soon. That’s because he’s emerging as a potential top-tier candidate in the Lone Star state race, posing a real tea party threat to better-funded candidates in what should be one of the most expensive primary races in the country.

With the continuing impact of the tea party being debated, Cruz’s candidacy represents perhaps the biggest early test of the continued influence of the tea party on Republican primaries in 2012.

Cruz is in the midst of a rapid ascent. First, he won the backing of the national tea party group FreedomWorks and the fiscally conservative Club for Growth on the same day earlier this month. Then he got a sterling review from conservative columnist George Will this week — on the eve of his RLC appearance.

Cruz is running a prototypical tea party campaign, relying on active grassroots support — he’s got more Facebook supporters than Gov. Rick Perry (R), who just ran a re-election campaign and may run for president — to compete with the big boys. In this case, that’s former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and, potentially, wealthy Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Dewhurst is the prohibitive favorite if he gets in, and Leppert has made a big splash early with his fundraising. But many conservatives aren’t waiting for Dewhurst — choosing instead to rally around Cruz.

Comparisons are already being drawn between Cruz and another Cuban-American, now-Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). But Cruz also sees parallels between himself and freshman Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) — a tea partier who unseated longtime incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah).

“Conventional wisdom was that he didn’t have a chance,” Cruz told The Fix. “2010 showed that money and the establishment are not what they used to be.”

Money could be a particularly big hindrance for Cruz, though. Conventional wisdom has it that Dewhurst could spend tens of millions of dollars of his own money if he decides to run, and while Cruz’s first-quarter haul of $1 million was very respectable, that kind of money doesn’t go nearly as far in Texas as it does in other places.

Another potential problem is his name. Hispanic Republicans haven’t been very successful in the state’s primaries, with an appointed state railroad commissioner attributing his primary loss to his Hispanic surname.

Cruz is also starting from scratch, basically, even though he emerged as the frontrunner in the state’s GOP Attorney General primary two years ago. (Cruz never got to complete that race, because Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison decided to stay in the Senate and the current attorney general opted to run for reelection rather than seek her seat.)

Despite that campaign, Cruz is not widely known, and he took just 2 percent in a University of Texas poll for the Texas Tribune last month.

That means he has a long way to go.

But he’s confident that this race will shake out like so many other tea party contests, telling the Dallas Morning News yesterday that, “by summer, we’ll emerge with one clear strong alternative to [Lt.] Gov. Dewhurst.”

Lee and Rubio, of course, also started out by raising pittances. But, by the end of their campaigns, circumstance created political opportunity, which turned into momentum and money, and then into Senate seats.

Cruz is on a similar trajectory.