Ted Cruz sought to shore up support among social conservatives and gain an edge over Donald Trump at a boisterous campaign stop outside Des Moines on Wednesday night that was billed as an antiabortion rally.
Joined by high-profile conservatives who dubbed themselves a “coalition for life,” Cruz attacked Trump on issues important to evangelical Christian voters, a bloc that Cruz long drew support from but from which he has recently lost ground to Trump.
Cruz is furiously trying to regain backing from social conservatives in the final days before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential nominating contest.
“When have you ever defended marriage? When have you ever defended religious liberty?” the Texas senator demanded of the absent Trump, to loud cheers in suburban West Des Moines from the standing-room-only audience that spilled into an anteroom. “Don’t tell me you’re pro-life. Show me.”
One day after Trump said he was withdrawing from Thursday’s GOP debate, Cruz challenged him to a one-on-one dialog over the weekend. Cruz drew applause when he said his campaign had reserved a time and venue: Saturday night in an auditorium in Sioux City, in the socially conservative western edge of Iowa.
“This entire process is a job interview,” Cruz said of the presidential primary. “Imagine if somebody said, 'I’d like the job, but I’m not showing up for the interview.'”
Many crowd members responded with Trump’s trademark reality-TV phrase: “You’re fired!”
Cruz, the son of an evangelical pastor and a vocal opponent of gay marriage and abortion, will need a big turnout from social conservatives to win Monday.
He called in heavy hitters for Wednesday night’s rally, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Iowa Rep. Steve King and Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, which advocates for socially conservative causes.
They and other Cruz supporters drew sharp contrasts between him and Trump, whom they portrayed as a flip-flopping liberal who adopted conservative religious views only when it was politically expedient.
Bob Vander Platts, an influential Iowa conservative, suggested Trump has “a pride and an arrogance and a temperament” that is not in line with Christian values. Cruz, he said, is “one of us."
U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas acknowledged that some voters may be torn between Cruz and Trump.
“That’s a struggle,” he said. But Gohmert urged Iowans to nominate “the guy who knows who he is, he knows who God is, and he knows the Creator that our founders wrote about.”
Cruz, he said, “knows that our rights don’t come from government; they come from God.”
Many voters seem to agree with the perception that Trump, a billionaire real estate mogul and reality television star, is not particularly religious.
A national survey from Pew Research Center released Wednesday showed that 47% of Republicans think Trump is not very or not at all religious. By contrast, three-quarters of those surveyed said they viewed Ted Cruz as a religious person.
Yet Trump is still leading in the polls, despite data that show about half of U.S. voters say they think it’s important to have someone in the White House who shares their religious perspective.
Suzette Henriksen, a sales manager in Des Moines who attended the Cruz rally, says she believes some Christian conservatives see Trump as a more viable option, even though he is less religious than Cruz. Iowans chose evangelical pastor Mike Huckabee as their candidate in 2008 and conservative Catholic Rick Santorum in 2012 -- two socially conservative candidates who ultimately failed to capture their party’s nomination.
“Some people are under this belief that [Trump] is the only person who can beat Hillary [Clinton],” Henriksen said. “Some might say it's OK that he's not a strong Christian because he is a strong businessman.”
Henriksen, who was wearing a Cruz button and plans to caucus for him on Monday, says she is not in that camp.
“I’m not willing to compromise,” she said.
Terry Butler, 57, a retired engineer from West Des Moines, says a candidate’s religion also matters to him.
“He is pandering a bit,” Butler said of Trump. Butler was disappointed when Trump botched a biblical reference during an appearance a few weeks ago at a Christian university.
“It didn't seem like he spends any time reading God’s word,” Butler said.
Butler, who is still undecided, says he probably won’t end up voting for Trump. Still, rather than watching Thursday’s GOP debate, he says he'll probably go to Trump’s event instead.
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