SPARTANBURG, S.C. — By most accounts, Ted Cruz has done and said everything he could to be the favorite of evangelicals here. He's taken all the right positions. He's won all the right endorsements.
Yet if public polls in the state are on target, billionaire Donald Trump continues to hold the advantage with the influential voting bloc. The campaign of Marco Rubio is also claiming progress as it seeks to undercut Cruz's efforts to consolidate evangelical support.
In the final week before the first-in-the-South primary here, Cruz has been making his hardest push yet to protect a base of support that he has repeatedly described as pivotal to propelling him to victory, both here and in a smattering of other southern states that vote a week later.
Trump's continued sway with the faithful nonetheless remains a source of befuddlement — and at times frustration — for Cruz allies and supporters weary of everything from Trump's multiple divorces to his comments in support of Planned Parenthood. Asked Friday how he explains Trump's appeal to evangelicals, Cruz began on a humble note.
"I'm a Christian. My faith is an integral part of who I am," the U.S. senator from Texas told conservative radio host Mike Gallagher. "We are working hard to campaign and earn the votes of everybody."
Cruz then went on to say it is "not hard to figure out" why people are supporting Trump: They are "ticked off" at Washington and Trump's hot rhetoric is "naturally attractive." Yet Cruz expressed confidence that voters would ultimately become more discerning as they learn about Trump's record.
Cruz has been more than willing to accelerate that process, offering particularly sharp criticism of Trump on issues of life, pouncing on everything from his "abortion-supporting" sister's judicial record to his remark at the most recent GOP debate that Planned Parenthood "does do wonderful things." As he rolled out a 19,360-member Pro-Lifers for Cruz coalition in South Carolina on Wednesday, Cruz also released a five-and-a-half-minute video in which he accused the billionaire of "playing games with the sanctity of life."
Among Cruz supporters, the message is resonating. After Cruz spoke here Wednesday night, a supporter from nearby Gaffney, Jason Whelcher, was initially at a loss for words when asked why he thought Trump was doing so well with evangelicals in the Palmetto State.
"I think he just puts it on," Whelchel ultimately said. "He might have faith, but he doesn't show it like Ted Cruz does ... strong about it, open about it."
In recent days, Cruz has expanded his religiously focused attacks to Rubio, grouping both the U.S. senator from Florida and Trump together as two candidates who would not fight hard enough against abortion and gay marriage, claims they both have emphatically denied. Cruz has couched the criticisms in the context of the recent death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, explicitly saying here at a forum for religious voters that Rubio and Trump "have not indicated they would invest the political capital" to appoint conservative jurists.
James Dobson, an influential figure in socially conservative circles, summed up the case in a video released Wednesday that reiterated his support for Cruz.
"After Donald Trump and Marco Rubio announced that they would accept the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, we knew we could not support them," Dobson said. "Our decision was confirmed when they opposed Sen. Cruz’s efforts to defund Planned Parenthood."
"I know Ted," Dobson added. "He’s a Christian family man of the utmost integrity."
Questioning any candidate's faith is a sensitive task in politics, as was shown Thursday when Pope Francis said Trump was not a Christian due to his support for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet Cruz's surrogates have been making similar aspersions on the integrity of Trump's faith for weeks — some in more explicit terms than others.
Conservative media personality Glenn Beck broached the topic while introducing Cruz at a rally last week in Fort Mill, putting the onus on Christians to keep Trump from winning South Carolina — and perhaps gaining unstoppable momentum there en route to the nomination.
"Too many people right now are looking at a guy like Donald Trump and believing that that man has ever opened a Bible," Beck said. "That's the biggest crock of bullcrap I've ever heard. We all know it, but there's too many that want just to go along for the show. This isn't a show. This is a profoundly sacred responsibility and each one of us will be held accountable by our creator when we meet him."
Cruz's strategy in the Palmetto State has long centered on mobilizing evangelicals, particularly in the deeply religious Upstate region. It began recruiting pastors in the state shortly after Cruz announced his campaign almost 11 months ago, and it now has more than 300 of them backing him here. His father Rafael, a pastor himself, has also been a regular presence in the state. And in November, the campaign chose Bob Jones University, a Christian school in Greenville, as the site of a massive rally for religious liberty an event Cruz has enjoyed recalling at length ever since on the stump in South Carolina.
Of course, Cruz's campaign never assumed it would have the evangelical vote entirely to itself in South Carolina. Mike Gonzalez, a pastor who heads Cruz's evangelical outreach in the state, said in an interview earlier this month that he expects Cruz to receive the "lion's share" of the evangelical vote, with most of the rest split among Rubio and Trump.
Yet recent polls cast doubt on such predictions, as polls continue to show Trump leading the GOP field among evangelicals — and by a lot. A CNN/ORC survey released Tuesday put Trump 19 points ahead Cruz, while a Public Policy Polling survey from the same day found a margin of 13 points. The poll released Friday, which was done by NBC, had much better news from Cruz, showing Trump leading him 29 percent to 26 percent among white evangelicals.
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who has been campaigning for Cruz in South Carolina, suggested Trump's advantage among evangelicals may be a symptom of a voting bloc that is still learning about where the candidates stand on issues important to them, even in the final days and hours before the primary.
"It's either a low-information voter or they're just so fed up with promises from people running for office that they just want to turn it upside down," Meadows added, predicting those same people will ultimately come around to Cruz as they learn more about Trump's record.
"It shows that from the pulpits of America ... they don't really get engaged a whole lot in politics," Meadows said. "They can. Many of them do, but not always."
With the hours dwindling until the South Carolina primary, Cruz's rivals prefer a different explanation to his lack of dominance among this lane of voters he has so strongly courted: He's not the consensus candidate for evangelicals that he claims to be. That argument is particularly popular among supporters of Rubio, who has appeared to gain ground with evangelicals in recent surveys.
"Evangelicals don't want to be taken for granted, and in the past they've had a (former Arkansas Gov. Mike) Huckabee or somebody who they all kind of get told, 'This is the one,' and now they realize there are a number of acceptable candidates," U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who has endorsed Rubio, said in an interview Wednesday. "Now they're making picks on other issues as long as you meet the litmus test, if you will, of being a genuine person of faith."
Issa pointed to how Cruz aggressively moved to stake his claim to the evangelical vote in Iowa. "I think what people saw was he was working too hard," Issa said.
Though Cruz came out first in that state's GOP caucuses, one entrance poll found Cruz winning born-again or evangelical Christians 34 percent to Trump's 22 percent and Rubio's 21 percent — a wide but not overwhelming margin, according to analysts who are quick to note that evangelicals in South Carolina are a larger and more diverse voting bloc.
“You would think that Cruz is going to go in and rake up the evangelical vote" in South Carolina, said Bruce Haynes, a GOP strategist with ties to the state. Yet in Iowa, Cruz "won it but he didn’t run away with it."