DES MOINES, Iowa — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Friday night offered a wide-ranging appeal to evangelicals in this key presidential proving ground, opting for humor, solemnity — and an unambiguous pitch for his viability as the GOP's presidential nominee.
"If the body of Christ rises up as one and votes our values, we can turn this country around," Cruz said as he drive home his mantra that more Christians need to show up the polls — and he is the candidate to inspire them.
In one of the most stirring moments, Cruz recalled one time when he asked God for forgiveness: He was a student in law school and his parents were on the verge of divorce. Citing the sin of pride, Cruz said he thought he could keep his mom and dad together, printing out "page after page of scripture" and sending it to them in hopes they would reconsider.
“I was convinced somehow I could stop it," Cruz said, "and I think that was hurtful to my parents."
Cruz's parents would eventually go through with the divorce. It's a part of his biography that rarely comes up on the campaign trail — and one that brought silence over a crowd of hundreds listening to him at The Family Leader's Presidential Family Forum.
Staged around a Thanksgiving table, the event was billed as a venue for Cruz and six other GOP candidates to bare their souls — not necessarily debate policy and politics — before an estimated crowd of 1,800 Iowa conservatives. It was also one of the last opportunities to publicly woo Family Leader head Bob Vaander Plaats, a kingmaker among evangelical voters who is expected to make an endorsement before Christmas. Vander Plaats is rumored to favor Cruz.
The forum got off to a rocky start, with protesters repeatedly interrupting moderator Frank Luntz as he asked the first question of Cruz. In an animated commentary, the senator later tied the heckling to recent examples of political correctness on college campuses across America.
"We're seeing universities all across this country with leftist-coddled kids, usually with trust funds, protesting against the horrible oppression because the microaggression — 'I heard a word that scared me,'" Cruz said. "What is wrong with our universities?"
The line scored with an audience that appeared to have grown frustrated with the frequent interruptions. Cruz drew another strong response when he rehashed his challenge to debate President Barack Obama on Syrian refugee policy. Asked what he would tell Obama if he were in the room, Cruz motioned to the crowd and said, "Mr. President, this is America."
"President Obama today is serving as an apologist for radical Islamic terrorists," Cruz later said, rejecting the idea that Obama is an "armchair quarterback" when it comes to foreign policy. "It's worse than that. The policies he's advancing are helping the other team."
In another shot at the Obama administration's foreign policy, Cruz reiterated his belief that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry "should resign in disgrace" for his statement that there as a "rationale" for the terrorists attacks earlier this year on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Luntz then asked the candidates to raise their hands if they agree with Cruz; not one immediately did so, but former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee interjected that while it would be nice for Kerry to resign, he would most prefer the president step down.
The episode could have legs as Cruz sharpens his differences with his GOP rivals. Cruz aides were quick to note during the forum that Cruz is the only senator running for president who voted against Kerry's confirmation in 2013.
By the end of the forum, though, it was clear Cruz's helpings of red meat aimed at Obama were the most popular. The senator most memorably riffed on Obama's notorious comment in 2008 that some Americans "get bitter" and "cling to guns or religion."
"Well, we’re not bitter, but we are getting pretty angry," Cruz said. "And you know what? He can’t have either our God or our guns."
Cruz also did not spare Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, latching on to her remark during a debate earlier this year that she counts Republicans among her "enemies."
"She doesn’t just mean the people sitting at this stage," Cruz said of the former secretary of state. "She means the people all across this country who terrify her."
The forum capped the first day of a two-day swing through Iowa for Cruz, who held town halls earlier Friday in Sioux City and Harlan. At each stop, he was accompanied by Hawkeye State Congressman Steve King, an influential figure in conservative circles who endorsed Cruz on Monday.