Ted Cruz needs an awakening among his religious base for a strong showing or a surprise win on Saturday in South Carolina.
In any other year in the GOP primary, the Texas senator, who talks of his faith with ease and frequently reiterates that he will defend religious liberty, might have the state's sizable evangelical vote sewn up. The voting bloc was crucial to his win in Iowa earlier this month, and religious conservatives make up an even larger share of the South Carolina Republican electorate.
But much to his frustration, Cruz is still competing with Donald Trump — the thrice-married billionaire with no problem cursing on the campaign trail — for white, born-again Christians. And the mudslinging between him and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio that has enveloped the race's final hours may also be denting Cruz as his rivals try to paint him as a liar.
Can Upstate Drive Up Cruz?
In the race's closing days, Cruz has been hitting the part of the Palmetto State that could make or break him — the heavily conservative, evangelical Upstate, which could hold as much as 40 percent of the state's primary vote.
Solidifying that region helped Newt Gingrich pull off a win in 2012. But it's also not a silver bullet to victory — Mike Huckabee carried the area in 2008, but Fred Thompson got enough of the vote to help John McCain to victory. McCain had strong showings in the less religiously focused Midlands and Lowcountry regions.
Cruz's best path to victory or at least a strong second-place finish runs through the Upstate. He knows it, and that is why he is barnstorming the region. On Wednesday, he held a rally at a private Christian school in Spartanburg before addressing a faith gathering at a Southern Baptist church.
Glossy videos shown before Cruz's early evening event at Oakbrook Preparatory School showed people praising his faith and trust in Jesus Christ. North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows took the stage, telling the audience to loud cheers that "there's a God who still reigns over the affairs of nation" even amid much political uncertainty in the world. And Iowa Rep. Steve King introduced Cruz, saying he was someone who had been "spoon-fed the Bible."
Cruz took the stage with his usual televangelist cadence, preaching about his tough stances on immigration, history of standing up to Washington and promise to defund Planned Parenthood and return the country to the Christian principles he says it was founded upon.
"There is an awakening and a spirit of revival that's sweeping this country," he tells the crowd.
David Barry of Fountain Inn, walking out of the rally with a red hat emblazoned "JESUS," came away converted. He had been leaning toward the Texas senator, but after that impassioned speech was now "fully committed."
"I like the way he mentioned his 7- and 5-year-old daughters and how he wanted a better future for them," Barry said. "I liked the way he knew 2 Chronicles 7:14 in his heart" — a verse that says, "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land."
As to whether Trump could fulfill that same promise if elected, Barry is doubtful.
"I don't think he has the character or the morals to really lead our country in the right way," he told NPR. And Barry predicted that polls showing Trump was still winning the state's evangelical vote were wrong.
Cruz On Trump's Heels In Final Hours
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Marist, released Friday morning, showed Cruz had slashed Trump's 16-point lead last month to just a 5-point advantage. But in the Upstate, Trump was still leading him by 4, and the real estate mogul still had a 3-point edge among white evangelical Christians statewide.
Republicans in the state point to Cruz's strong ground game and data targeting that helped him turn out voters in Iowa, which could make the difference in a very close contest.
In the past week, following the unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Cruz has added a new argument he hopes can move those numbers even more — he's the only trusted conservative in the race who can appoint reliable Supreme Court justices.
When he took the stage later Wednesday evening at the Faith & Freedom Forum at First Baptist North Spartanburg, Cruz spent the majority of his time talking not just about his own faith but about how that faith led him to argue cases that protected religious monuments. He explained how he would make sure to appoint justices who would not legislate cases on marriage and abortion from the bench.
"If you want a Republican who will stand unapologetically for marriage and life, I'm the only person on that stage who has a proven record of doing so over and over again," Cruz said. "Religious liberty has been a lifelong passion for me."
Cruz was just one of two candidates who addressed the packed sanctuary. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson spoke earlier; Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush sent surrogates on their behalf; but Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich didn't send anyone. Democrats were also invited but didn't attend.
Phil Tittle of Campobello was one of the attendees. He had decided on Cruz a while ago but also said he admired Carson, though he thought he wasn't ready to be president yet. To Campobello, it still didn't make sense how Christians could cast a ballot for the often vulgar Trump, and he predicted many would come back to the fold before Saturday.
"I think the message Donald Trump had before spoke to the anger and frustration of the mainstream Republican Party, which is leaving the people," Tittle said. "But they're finding out who he is, that he's a person with no moral compass. I think they're finding out the message of Ted Cruz, and he's catching on."
Rubio Vs. Cruz — When A Handshake Isn't What It Appears
But it's not just Trump that Cruz has to persuade religious voters to not be swayed by — Rubio, too, is making a play for a share of evangelical voters. In the final days in the Palmetto State, the two campaigns have been feuding over ads from Cruz's campaign that attack Rubio on immigration reform. And on Thursday, Rubio's campaign attacked Cruz after his campaign posted a digitally altered image of Rubio and President Obama shaking hands on a website comparing the Florida senator's record to the president's.
All that comes on the heels of charges Cruz has still been trying to dispel after the Iowa caucuses that his campaign staffers had spread incorrect information that Carson was dropping his campaign, trying to sway last-minute support to the Texas senator.
Haley Grau of Spartanburg was at the church event and had heard the Iowa rumors, saying it made her question whether Cruz was the best representation of the GOP. But after hearing Cruz speak Wednesday night, she walked away giving him a new look.
"I came in here with my mind made up" for Rubio, Grau said, "and to be honest, I'm not so sure right now. I really have some thinking and praying to do after tonight."
She added, "I thought his opinions were strong; he laid out his law history very well, and I thought that he really addressed the Justice Scalia issue and some practical ways he could get some justices confirmed. I came in here not giving Cruz the time of day, and now I've really got to think about that."