GOP candidates compete in North Texas to unite religious conservatives

GOP candidates compete to unite religious conservatives behind them

The Washington Post · Karen Tumulty · NATIONAL, POLITICS · Oct 18, 2015 (5 minutes ago)

PLANO, Tex. — A half-dozen GOP presidential candidates auditioned on Sunday before an audience of more than 6,000 religious conservatives, who seemed particularly stirred by their fiery home-state senator, Ted Cruz.

Evangelical voters are a critical segment of the Republican base, and one that appears to be up for grabs in this most unsettled campaign season. The forum at 40,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church near Dallas was one of the largest faith-based political gatherings of the 2016 presidential season thus far.

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Appearing were Cruz, former Hewlett Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

All were received warmly, and the audience’s reactions gave an indication of what issues are likely to galvanize evangelical voters.

Cruz got the biggest cheers and the heartiest standing ovations as he focused on what he said were the greatest threats to religious liberty in the nation’s history.

Huckabee, who was a Baptist minister before going into politics, also had the audience on its feet as he inveighed against radical Islam and warned that Israel’s survival is threatened.

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Cruz invoked the name of a candidate who was not there – the front-runner in the polls.

“One of the most tremendously helpful things to my campaign has been Donald Trump’s candidacy,” Cruz said. The celebrity billionaire has focused the campaign on a single question, Cruz said: “Who will stand up to Washington?”

The senator said his record has distinguished him from the rest of the field in that regard, and asked of the other candidates, “Where were they?”

Some of the candidates offered personal testimony as bona fides of their faith and the stands they have taken on the issues.

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Fiorina, for instance, said that her opposition to abortion began when she was in her 20s, after she accompanied a friend to a Planned Parenthood clinic for the procedure and saw the toll it took on her friend.

Fiorina’s discovery that she was not able to bear a child deepened her conviction that abortion is wrong, she said.

Bush spoke of his conversion to Catholicism and his conviction that “life has value.” As governor, Bush said, he put his faith into action by defunding Planned Parenthood, promoting adoption and “standing on the side of life” in the legal struggle over removing a feeding tube from Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who was in a vegetative state.

“I was all-in on life. I didn’t talk about it. I did it,” Bush said.

Evangelical voters vote overwhelmingly Republican. People who identify themselves as evangelicals comprise more than 40 percent of the GOP primary electorate and are particularly influential in some of the early contests, starting with the Iowa caucuses.

In the past two presidential cycles, such voters provided late surges of support in Iowa that catapulted their favored candidates — Huckabee in 2008, Santorum in 2012 —from the back of the pack to victory in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

At this point, it is difficult to predict whether they will coalesce around one or a few candidates in the enormous GOP field, or whether their support will be dispersed.

Huckabee and Santorum are running again, but socially conservative voters are also taking an intense interest in political newcomers such as Fiorina, Cruz and Carson, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. And as governor of Florida, Bush championed many of their causes.

Santorum, who is struggling in the polls, insisted he is not concerned by the fresh competition.

“It’s like shopping for a new car. If there’s a fancy new model, you probably want to hop in and take it for a spin before you drive home in a Suburban,” Santorum said.

Faith and Freedom Coalition President Ralph Reed, whose organization sponsored the event, said that evangelical voters are enjoying “an embarrassment of riches” as they try to decide which contender to support.

“There are more candidates with a compelling faith testimony and strong stands on social issues than at any time in the modern history of the GOP,” Reed said. “Choosing a candidate will be difficult and may take longer than one might expect.”