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Why evangelicals are splitting their votes and what it means for the GOP

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Welcome to Trail Guide, your host through the wilds of the 2016 presidential campaign. It's Sunday, Feb. 14, and here's what we're talking about:

Clinton, Sanders take campaigns to a Las Vegas church

 (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were at war a few days ago at the Democratic debate. But on Sunday, they sat down together at the same Las Vegas church.

They were there to campaign, of course.

Victory Missionary Baptist Church, in a historic African American neighborhood on the west side of Las Vegas, is seen as a key to help unlock crucial black votes in the Democratic caucus that will be held in six days.

The church’s pastor, Robert E. Fowler, has endorsed Clinton. But Sanders stopped by his service on Sunday, too, to try to peel away a few votes.

African Americans made up about 15% of Democratic caucus-goers in Nevada in 2008. Together with Latinos, they are expected to make up about a third of Saturday’s vote.

Polls show Sanders is less known than Clinton among both groups. He has been courting them overtly in recent days, sitting down for a well-covered meeting with the Rev. Al Sharpton at a diner in Harlem a few days ago.

Sanders and Clinton sat in the same pew, separated by several people. The pastor seemed tickled by his high-profile guests.

“We thank God our church … is singled out today to have both presidential candidates,” Fowler said.

As evangelical voters split, one pastor shares his concerns about Donald Trump

Donald Trump may be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, but his personal and policy choices have raised concerns among some faith voters — including one South Carolina pastor who shared his own misgivings Sunday with his congregation.

Senior Pastor Carl Broggi told the faithful at Community Bible Church that Trump's views on abortion, his salty language and even his wife's magazine-posing give him pause.

"My people need to know how I feel," said Broggi, before introducing his preferred candidate, Ted Cruz, to speak before the overflow crowd in Beaufort.

"I do not want a president of the United States who is cheered when vulgarity is used," he said. "We need a president who stands for what is true."

Evangelicals are split over who to support among the Republican candidates, a divide that breaks partly along a generational divide.

South Carolina is an overtly religious state that will further test the unity of the religious vote, and Broggi mentioned that a prominent leader had called to ask him why South Carolina was "so excited by Donald Trump."

The pastor also reminded churchgoers of their duty to vote.

Ted Cruz warns church-goers of a liberal Supreme Court

Ted Cruz used almost his entire Sunday sermon at a Christian church in this charming coastal town to warn of the potential seismic change coming to the Supreme Court.

Cruz has been stumping hard for the evangelical vote and sought to appeal to a desire to turn the nation's policy apparatus to a focus on Christian values.

On landmark issues important to faith voters -- abortion, gay marriage, religious liberty -- the Texas senator said the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia's death Saturday creates a once-in-a-generation shift of what has often been a 5-4 divided court.

"We are one justice away from a radical, five-seat liberal majority the likes of which this country as never seen," Cruz warned as voters prepare to cast ballots in Saturday's primary.

"We are here today because every single one of us knows our country is under attack," he told the 2,000-plus crowd, asking for their votes. "People are waking up. There is a spiritual awakening, a spirit of revival that's sweeping South Carolina and sweeping the nation."

He even did the math for the faithful: If all those present and the others listening at satellite campuses -- some 7,500 total -- voted and brought nine friends with them, he could win the Palmetto State.

Afterward, he stayed for selfies as volunteers collected voter information from those interested in voting for Cruz.

GOP debate brawls continue

The barnyard brawl that was the GOP debate continued on Sunday, with GOP front-runner Donald Trump doubling down on his criticism of the nation’s last Republican president. George W. Bush could have prevented the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and failed to protect the nation, Trump said.

“How did he keep us safe, when the World Trade Center, during his time in office, came down?” Trump said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I was there. I lost many, many friends in that tragedy. That was the worst tragedy in the history of this country, worse than Pearl Harbor, because they attacked civilians. They attacked people in office buildings.”

Trump added that Bush “should have known” about the impending attacks before they happened.

The businessman-turned-reality-television-star also lashed out at Jeb Bush for his slow and evolving response on whether the Iraq War was a mistake, and at Sen. Ted Cruz for supporting Supreme Court Justice John G. Roberts Jr. during the confirmation process.

Cruz accused Trump of being akin to the Democratic presidential candidates.

“How do we know Donald Trump's record on this is going to be bad? He has supported liberals for four decades: Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid,” Cruz said on "Meet the Press." “Anyone who cares about judges would not be supporting Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer and John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. And the consequence is, if either Hillary or Bernie or Donald Trump is the president, we will see the 2nd Amendment written out of the Constitution.”

Sen. Marco Rubio reiterated his attack on Cruz, saying the Texas senator habitually lies.

“[I]n the last couple weeks, he has really exhibited this very troubling tendency to say things that just aren't true, I mean, just making things up,” Rubio said on CBS’ "Face the Nation," adding that Cruz had lied about his position on immigration reform and on Rubio’s stances on marriage and Planned Parenthood. “It's really a troubling trend. I think it means someone is willing to say or do anything to win an election, even if it's not true.”

Rubio, asked whether the GOP infighting would help the Democrats, acknowledged it would but said it was nevertheless necessary.

“I think, ultimately, that's true,” he said. "I would prefer the debates be all about policy. If you watch, I never launch these attacks. But if I'm attacked, I need to respond…. So, I don't like it. But, unfortunately, sometimes, you have to do it because people are saying things that just aren't true.”

He added that Democrats in 2008 had contentious debates that did not harm them.

“Let's not forget that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton said some really horrible things about each other during that campaign, and he ended up winning, and she ended up working for him,” he said.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich reiterated his belief that voters respond to a positive message rather than “all the yelling and screaming and back and forth.”

“What I have found, and I tell you I'm having the time of my life, people want to know what you're for,” Kasich said on "Meet the Press." "I get my energy by being for things. I don't get my energy by being against things. And I think people tend to get negative when they're not selling their own positive.”

Justice Antonin Scalia's death refocuses GOP presidential race

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dominated the Sunday news shows, with GOP presidential candidates urging the Senate to block any appointment by President Obama and saying the development underscored the importance of electing a conservative Republican to the White House.

“His passing yesterday really underscores the stakes of this election. We are facing our fundamental rights in a balance,” Sen. Ted Cruz said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “… we ought to make the 2016 election a referendum on the Supreme Court.”

Sen. Marco Rubio said he is confident that the Senate would not confirm an Obama appointee.

“The Senate is not moving forward on it until after the election,” he said on CBS’ "Face the Nation." “Sen. McConnell, the majority leader, has already made that clear. And I agree with that. There's been precedent established over 80 years that, in the last year, especially in the last 11 months, you do not have a lame-duck president make a lifetime appointment to the highest court on the land.”

(Supreme Court experts dispute that assertion, noting at least half a dozen times since 1900 that presidents nominated and confirmed justices during a presidential election year.)

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said that he wished the president would not make an appointment given how divided the nation is, and instead allow voters to register their preference through the presidential contest.

“And then everybody would be clear about what they want in the next Supreme Court justice. But I guess it's not going to go that way,” he said on "Meet the Press." “… You and I both know in the real world, they're not going to confirm anybody. Unless they pick somebody who's so beloved that everybody goes, ‘That's great,’ OK. I don't think that's going to happen.”

GOP candidates court an increasingly divided evangelical vote

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

After the ugliest GOP debate so far, some GOP candidates in South Carolina headed Sunday morning to church — perhaps for spiritual reflection, or to win votes from evangelicals.

Now accounting for about one-quarter of the population and long a reliable source of GOP votes, evangelicals, however, are not the united bloc they once were.

Iowa proved that. Evangelicals split their votes among Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

The division is largely a demographic and generational trend, and it's threatening to diminish evangelicals' influence. 

Here's our deeper dive into what's driving evangelicals apart and what it means for GOP presidential candidates.

Scalia's death puts Supreme Court at the center of the election

 (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

Justice Antonin Scalia's death has turned a second-tier topic into a central facet of the 2016 presidential campaign: Among the new president's first acts likely will be nominating a justice who will determine the balance of power on the Supreme Court.

Potential court openings haven't dominated debates thus far in the campaign, and voters have not often raised it, aside from a suggestion to Hillary Clinton that, if elected, she'd appoint President Obama. But Scalia's death changes all that, vaulting into prominence a choice that will determine the country's course on voting rights, abortion, immigration, campaign finance, the environment and other contentious issues.

The battle lines were drawn within minutes of the death announcement.

Trump attacks Bush in personal terms, as death of Scalia hangs over GOP debate

 (Erik S. Lesser / European Pressphoto Agency)

(Erik S. Lesser / European Pressphoto Agency)

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush launched into a bitter and at times deeply personal volley of insults Saturday at the Republican presidential debate, a forum where the ideological stakes were raised by the death only hours earlier of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

As the audience boos grew louder, Trump persisted in an attack on Bush and his brother, former President George W. Bush, for what he characterized as their failure to grasp the problems in the Middle East.

“The war in Iraq was a big fat mistake,” Trump said, then recounting what he cast as Jeb Bush’s waffling on the subject when he entered the race last summer. “It took him five days before his people told him what to say, and he ultimately said it was a mistake.”

Of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, Trump said: “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none.”

By the numbers

All things Clinton | All things Trump

How does Clinton or Trump get to 270 electoral votes? Play with our map.

Who's endorsing who? Find out which celebrities support each candidate.

Find out which Republicans support Donald Trump

Get free news and analysis in your inbox daily from our political team.

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