Donald Trump, hoping to slow Ted Cruz's surge, makes inroads with evangelicals

In the final days before Iowans begin the presidential nominating process, Donald Trump, whose candidacy has both perplexed and enlivened various factions of the Republican Party, is focused on shoring up the support of the state’s evangelical voters who could propel him to victory and bolster his momentum in the upcoming primaries.

Trump announced Tuesday the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr., an influential evangelical leader and president of Liberty University, who called the billionaire businessman a "successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”

The endorsement from Falwell comes a week after former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin tossed her support behind the billionaire’s candidacy. Palin has a strong following of evangelical and tea party supporters.

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Each of those endorsements arrives as Trump seeks to slow the surge of his top rival in Iowa, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has strong support from evangelicals.

“It’s all calculated and really shows how he can morph himself so that he’s appealing,” Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, said of Trump’s support from Falwell and Palin. “He does what he needs to. ... He's not a tried and true politician, but ... in many ways, he has become a politician. Has Trump ever talked about evangelicals in his career? I would say not so much.”

Indeed, over the weekend Trump attended church in Iowa and last week he spoke at the invocation at Falwell's Liberty University. 

National polls show Trump is succeeding in winning over evangelicals -- who are also influential in South Carolina, another state with an early vote.   An NBC News/Survey Monkey poll released Tuesday showed Trump with 37% support from white evangelicals nationwide, while Cruz had 20%, a 9% drop since last week.

Still, a mix of state and national polls reveals the race for evangelical support appears to be a toss-up. 

A Quinnipiac University poll of likely Iowa GOP caucusgoers released Tuesday showed Cruz leading Trump among evangelicals, 39% to 27%.

“I am a Christian. I'm a good Christian. And the evangelicals have figured it out," Trump said at a news conference in Marshalltown, a small farming community in central Iowa where he held a rally Tuesday.

Jon Espenscheid, a 50-year-old evangelical Christian, attended the rally. He he said his support for Trump doesn't have to do with his religion. 

"He's an outsider," Espenscheid said. "He won't have to answer to anybody."

On Tuesday, Trump went on the attack against Bob Vander Plaats, a powerful Iowa evangelical leader who endorsed Cruz. Vander Plaats is head of the faith-based group the Family Leader and a staunch opponent of abortion, and his endorsement was courted heavily by both Cruz and Trump. 

"Why doesn't phony Vander Plaats tell his followers all the times he asked for him and his family to stay at my hotels," Trump tweeted.  

Cruz in recent weeks has battled Trump over the senator's presidential eligiblity (Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother and Cuban father) and his positions on immigration. The Texan has sought to cast Trump as a faux conservative whose Christian beliefs should be questioned.

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A super PAC supporting Cruz released a television ad on Monday in Iowa castigating Trump for his past views on abortion, which cites a 1999 interview in which Trump notes he's "pro-choice in every respect."

"If Donald wins Iowa, he right now has a substantial lead in New Hampshire, if he went on to win New Hampshire as well, there is a very good chance he could be unstoppable and be our nominee,” Cruz warned pastors at a private meeting in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, earlier in the week.

Katie Packer, a Republican strategist who is unaligned in the 2016 presidential race but whose super PAC operates a website questioning Trump on various issues, said the businessman's endorsements are an effort to validate his support among evangelicals. 

"But his record -- on issues like abortion -- is not steadfast,” Packer said. “He's wavered a lot." 

Times staff writer Kate Linthicum in Marshalltown contributed to this report.

Follow @kurtisalee for political news

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UPDATE

6:35 p.m. This post was updated with additional comments from Trump and a supporter of his candidacy.  

This post was originially published at 3:11 p.m. 

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