GREENVILLE, S.C. — Greenville Republicans tend to be loyal congregants, attending church every Sunday morning and Wednesday night. The area boasts two local evangelical colleges: Bob Jones University and North Greenville University. Christian music and fundamentalist sermons are easily found on the radio dial.
“South Carolina is in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Greenville is the buckle itself,” said Pastor Al Phillips, a leader of the Greenville Baptist Association.
Situated in South Carolina's northwestern corner, a region known colloquially as “the Upstate,” the town of about 62,000 is smaller than better-known cities like Columbia and Charleston. But second only to Des Moines, Iowa, it is the place U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has visited most in his quest for the GOP presidential nomination.
Trailing Donald Trump in most state polls, the junior senator from Texas is betting big that Greenville's large swath of evangelical voters will deliver him to a strong finish in Saturday's primary.
“He’s doing the same thing he did in Iowa, which is go after the evangelical vote, and let that be the hot center of his vote and hope that the heat transmits to the rest of the state, “ said former South Carolina GOP Chairman Barry Wynn, a backer of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
In all, Cruz has attended or held 16 events in Greenville, and the number climbs if nearby towns are counted. The only other destination in that ballpark is Des Moines, where he attended at least 21 events during his 10-month courtship of Iowa.
Some of the Greenville stops were national campaign events — forums and debates that attracted a slate of GOP hopefuls. But time and again, Cruz returns to immerse himself in the city's welcoming evangelical waters.
Bob Jones University hosted a candidate forum last Friday attended by Cruz and rivals Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Immediately after his question-and-answer session with the state attorney general and a local evangelical leader, Cruz shot across town to lead an opening prayer at a Christian rock concert.
While Greenville is a relatively small city, Greenville County has 475,000 residents, and on primary election nights few regions are more closely watched. Greenville can keep a candidate in the game.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an evangelical favorite, won the county in 2008, but U.S. Sen. John McCain overpowered him with support in Columbia, the state capital, and on the coast where many veterans live.
The Greenville-Spartanburg media market, South Carolina Republicans say, is especially powerful, reaching far beyond the city to a wide area of evangelical voters and spilling into North Carolina, planting seeds for that state's March 15 primary.
Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe seemed a bit surprised when asked about his candidate's frequency in the city. But he laughed, pointing to Cruz's state director, LaDonna Ryggs, who lives in nearby Greer and is a graduate of Bob Jones University.
"Our state director's from here, so that probably has some impact,” Roe said after Saturday's debate in, yes, Greenville.
“I used to be a state director on a presidential campaign,” he added. “You don't ever bring them where you'll be embarrassed. LaDonna would probably dispute that, but that is a point.”
While Trump led Cruz, and the rest of the GOP pack, by double digits in polls leading up to Saturday's primary, Cruz can pick up delegates in places like Greenville. South Carolina awards some delegates based on statewide results, and others by results in congressional districts.
But there are two area voters Cruz has not won to his side, and their influence may dampen his hopes for a landslide in the Upstate. Local U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of neighboring Spartanburg is with Rubio, and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, of nearby Seneca, backs Bush and does little to hide his contempt for Senate colleague Cruz.
Back in December, Cruz participated in a question-and-answer forum with Gowdy and South Carolina's other U.S. senator, Tim Scott, both coveted Republican endorsements. Scott, like Gowdy, ultimately went with Rubio.
Gowdy, a well-regarded player on Capitol Hill and chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, recently went further than mere support, becoming Rubio's attack dog when it comes to Cruz. On Thursday, Gowdy released a video taped on the campaign bus ripping into Cruz, accusing the Texan of underhanded tactics.
"Come on, you're better than that. You ought to be better than that," said Gowdy, looking into the camera. "You're running for the highest office in the land. Your campaign ought to be better than that."
The Cruz campaign, for its part, shies away from any notion that all of its eggs are in Greenville's basket. Roe stressed that Cruz is running a diversified statewide effort, noting the candidate's travels to South Carolina's coast and other areas.
“I feel like we have a really good balance,” said Roe, the campaign manger. “We follow the voter ... we go to where they are.”