PLANO — Tailoring their presidential pitches to suburban Dallas evangelicals, a half-dozen Republican presidential hopefuls Sunday afternoon stressed their affinity for the Lone Star State, though it’s unlikely all of them will still be running by the time the Texas primary rolls around in March.
“God bless the great state of Texas,” said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the native son at the presidential summit at Prestonwood Baptist Church. “It is really good to be home.”
Organizers billed the event, which drew around 6,000 people, as an opportunity for candidates to make an in-person case to Texans ahead of its March 1 primary, an earlier-than-usual date that gives the state greater influence in the nominating contest. The event was potentially the largest — and only — Texas forum for Republican presidential candidates before those who last long enough meet on a Houston debate stage in February.
That debate will take place after the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada winnow the GOP field.
Event organizers invited all Democratic and Republican hopefuls and hoped for 10 to show up. Six GOP candidates did, including Cruz, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Prestonwood pastor Jack Graham said the church “made it clear everyone was invited to come, but we believe the right people are in the room today.”
There was no shortage of candidates with Texas connections to boast. Chief among them were Cruz, whose campaign is based in Houston, and Bush, with his family's Texas political dynasty.
Many of the plentiful state and federal officeholders in attendance have endorsed Cruz, including U.S. Reps. Michael Burgess of Fort Worth and John Ratcliffe of Heath, as well as state Reps. Jeff Leach and Matt Shaheen, both of Plano. Attorney General Ken Paxton, to whom Cruz offered support during his campaign last year, also attended.
Cruz was hardly alone in his courtship of Texans. Texas is a proportional state, so it's possible for candidates who can last until the March primary to peel off some of the state’s 155 delegates.
Graham greeted Bush by saying, “Welcome to Bush Country.”
Bush noted a nearby highway — the President George Bush Turnpike — and joked that he couldn’t remember if it was named for his brother or his father.
Huckabee reminded the audience he has previously spoken at the church and had Graham's endorsement in the 2008 presidential race.
At a news conference before the event, Huckabee teased local reporters about the University of Texas/University of Arkansas rivalry and mentioned that he once lived in Fort Worth.
“One of the Texans has dropped out,” he kidded, referring to former Gov. Rick Perry, when asked how he will win Texas delegates. “I need to get the rest of them to do that and then once that happens, we’ll start fighting a little more thoroughly for it.
“Look, the people of Texas are good people. They’ve got several choices, not only the people from their own state, but I don’t think when it comes down to it, this election is going to be about picking somebody from the hometown as much as it’s going to be, who can go to Washington and truly lead a government.”
Santorum similarly aimed to stoke his Texas credentials, saying he recently attended an event hosted by the Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party. He also said in his forum remarks that he has a stake in a Flower Mound-based faith-based movie studio.
“We try to mix in speaking to larger venues as well as trying to raise some money,” Santorum told reporters. “If you don’t do well in either Iowa or New Hampshire, then your chances of ever showing up in Texas are pretty small.”