Star Tribune via Associated Press, Richard Tsong-Taatarii
Supporters wait to hear Sen. Ted Cruz during a campaign stop, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 in St. Paul, Minn.

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — 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 do a better job collecting voter information after an August bus tour of southern states where about 19,000 people showed up, but from which they got contacts 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.

Hood, 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

Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP and find more of his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-bauer