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Cruz Woos Evangelical Voters in South Carolina

The third-in-the-nation South Carolina primary on Feb. 20 will come at a pivotal point for Sen. Ted Cruz, who's betting big that the Palmetto State's religious and elderly voters will commit to him.

Ted Cruz greets supporters at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina on Nov. 14, 2015.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — In an auditorium of thousands at his Saturday "Rally for Religious Liberty" at evangelical bastion Bob Jones University, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz asked the pastors in attendance to stand. He praised them and explained the central role they play in his campaign for the Republican nomination.

"We are building a coalition of pastors in all 46 counties here in South Carolina," he said. "If you're a pastor and not part of the coalition, I ask you to join us because you have a special voice, a special ability."

But his tone turned almost cold, explaining that evangelical voters often stay at home during general elections.

"And some pastors, you may be thinking, well, over half of Christians aren't voting, but not in my church," he said. "You sure? How sure are you?"

The third-in-the-nation South Carolina primary on Feb. 20 will come at a pivotal point for Cruz. From there, he will move to the greater South for the March 1 primary — a region his team argues could put him on a path to the nomination. Cruz is betting big that South Carolina's religious and elderly voters will commit to him.

For now, Cruz is in a distant third or fourth place here, lagging far behind real estate mogul Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Carson, specifically, poses a threat with Cruz's evangelical constituency. But a recent Monmouth University poll showed that while Cruz was solidly in the second tier of Republicans in South Carolina, voters are still somewhat unfamiliar with him and he has room to grow — especially if the other men falter. 

And so, in his travels, Cruz missed no opportunity to express his fluency with the evangelical world. He joked about being "a P.K." — a preacher's kid — and the first line in some of his biographical paraphernalia stated he is a graduate of Second Baptist High School in Houston.

As rallygoers at Bob Jones exited the auditorium, they dropped forms with their contact information into boxes that said "I Endorse Cruz for President!" It was a tactic not unlike then-Sen. Barack Obama's campaign collection of index cards from Iowa town hall participants in late 2007.

The next day at the Florence Baptist Temple church's Sunday services in central South Carolina, one could find bulletins near the sanctuary offering legal guidance on parishioners' rights to discuss religion in the workplace.

"To prohibit religious discussion or references to religious worship or beliefs while allowing other forms of non-business discussion among employees would demonstrate religious discrimination," the flyer states. "[But] it is important that Christians make sure they do not allow witnessing activities to interfere with job productivity."

Here and elsewhere in South Carolina, Cruz discussed to the congregation how evangelicals are a "persecuted" group and went into specific detail on the cases he litigated pertaining to the public expression of faith.

Later in the service, Cruz told the story of his father abandoning his family when the senator was a young child. He explained it was the moment his father accepted a coworker's Bible study invitation that sparked the elder Cruz's interest in evangelical Christianity and set into motion his return to the family.

His implicit point: His childhood is living proof of what can come about from workplace proselytizing.

Like the day before, Cruz ran through the evangelical turnout numbers and challenged the congregation to turn out the vote.

"We not only heard from a political leader, we heard from a first-tier preacher," Pastor Bill Monroe said as the Texan left center stage.

On Monday, Cruz campaigned at Sun City, an upscale retirement community near Hilton Head that is a must-stop for Republican presidential campaigns in South Carolina. Here, he mentioned religious liberty again, but he also stressed his support for a flat tax and fielded questions about illegal immigration.

In a few months, South Carolinians will go to the polls, and Cruz is lobbying conservatives hard to come out on his behalf.

Eleven days after that primary, Cruz will turn to the "SEC" primary on March 1. Six Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Georgia — will host their own contests on that day, and Cruz and his supporters say he'll rack up delegates on that day's proportional allocation primary.

One of those supporters is Louie Hunter, who is a key Georgia campaign volunteer.

"I think that if he does well in South Carolina, it adds to the momentum of the SEC primary," he said.

At the retirees event in Hilton Head, retired insurance businessman Jerry Kauffman said he's impressed with Cruz but is also seriously considering voting for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. A Republican, Kauffman worries Carson and Trump are not electable in the general election.

How can rival campaigns overcome their South Carolina leads?

"They need to keep hitting their message and wait," he said. "I don't know what else they can do. It does no good to attack Trump or Ben Carson."

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