Evangelical voters are courted every presidential election by Republicans, especially in Iowa. But this year, they could have an even larger impact.
That's because a slew of Southern states are holding primaries on the same day in March of next year, just a month after Iowa votes. And one candidate is making a bold early effort to win them over — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
His latest pitch to religious voters came in a conference call Tuesday with church pastors from around the country.
"This is an incredible gathering of faith leaders across the country, of pastors who are standing up and answering the call," Cruz said on the call.
It's all part of an effort to build a grass-roots movement that his campaign can tap into and for him to be able to distinguish himself from the rest of the field to win what he calls the "evangelical bracket." Cruz has some competition in that lane, notably from the last two Iowa winners — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — as well as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Tea Party favorite Ben Carson.
When it's not conference calls for Cruz — who kicked off his campaign at Liberty University, an evangelical college in Virginia — it's a bus tour across the South or a rally in Des Moines, where this past weekend, Christian rock music blared from the loudspeakers.
"All creatures of the God and King" was part of one lyric at the event.
Cruz took the stage sounding like a preacher at a mega-church. "The Lord tells us, where two or more are gathered in his name he will be with us," he said to applause.
His message? That religious freedom is under attack and that business owners opposed to same-sex marriage are under fire, because they don't want to provide services — flowers, catering or event space — to such ceremonies.
"There is a war on faith in America today," Cruz said.
In the conference call earlier, and at every campaign event, Cruz attacks Planned Parenthood. He highlights the recent series of undercover videos from an anti-abortion-rights group accusing the organization of selling fetal tissue from abortions for profit.
"I don't have to remind anyone here of the atrocities being committed every day by Planned Parenthood," Cruz said in Iowa, adding, "These videos that have been made public make vivid what we already knew."
His push continues in campaign ads, like this one.
"How did America become a country that harvests organs from unborn children? And who has the courage to stop it?" an announcer asks. Then, a flash. Cruz's face appears, as the pace of the ad's music picks up — reminiscent of a charging cavalry in an old Western. "Ted Cruz will prosecute and defund Planned Parenthood. Help Cruz restore American values."
Cruz said he plans to be part of a 50-state grass-roots effort to build pressure to defund Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood calls the videos — and Cruz's push — a smear campaign using false and outrageous claims.
"This is just his way to try and find and carve a spot into the Republican landscape and extreme right that tends to control the Republican primary process," said Dawn Leguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Other candidates may be wooing evangelicals, but none has worked those voters quite as hard as Cruz. He's currently polling in the top tier in Iowa, and he's been spending time across the South. On March 1, more than half a dozen Southern states will likely all vote in the so-called SEC primary — named after the region's powerhouse college football conference.
"He's speaking to issues and almost only those issues in a primary that's front-loaded with Southern states and states that are heavily laden with evangelicals," said Janine Parry, a pollster at the University of Arkansas.
Parry added that it gives Cruz an issue where he can get attention even as much of the field is caught up in the Donald Trump storyline.
The downside is that the issue won't likely play as well in a general election.
"I think that's the risk, and that's what you see in Cruz," Parry said. "He's running a primary election strategy, and you know most strategists would say you kind of have to in a field like this. But also in general, you don't get to go to the general election if you can't win the primary."
Cruz argues that he can win the nomination — and the presidency — by motivating real conservatives and not worrying at all about winning moderates. That's something he and others argue imperiled Republicans' chances in the last several elections.
He has another tool he may use to prove his commitment to the base. He may again threaten a government shutdown this fall over funding for Planned Parenthood. GOP leadership in Congress doesn't want that, but he may see it as a way to stand out in this crowded presidential field.
NPR's Domenico Montanaro contributed to this report.