Courting evangelical voters, Cruz must prove he means it
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Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzConservatives express concern over House GOP immigration bill GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border Senate GOP tries to defuse Trump border crisis MORE is facing questions over his commitment to socially conservative causes as rivals seek to cut into his lead among Iowa evangelicals, who make up the largest voting bloc in the state.

The Republican presidential candidate has endorsements from some of the most respected and influential socially conservative voices in Iowa, including Christian leader Bob Vander Plaats and radio host Steve Deace, and he has a big lead in the polls among evangelicals in the state.

But with less than a month to go before the Iowa caucuses, those endorsements have led to bitterness in some quarters and provoked questions about Cruz’s commitment to the cause.

Cruz is a vocal supporter of the 10th Amendment and believes that states’ rights trump federal mandates on issues including gay marriage and marijuana legalization.

Cruz’s critics and rivals are using that against him as they seek frame him as a Johnny-come-lately to the culture wars whose rhetoric on socially conservative causes outpaces his record.

“His positions on these issues are out of step with a lot of social conservatives in the state,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Republican Party of Iowa. “It would be more of a problem for him right now if it looked like there was a more viable challenger from the right, but if someone does emerge, it could be a huge problem for him and potentially cut his base in half.”

GOP rivals Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and 2012 respectively, are leading the charge to paint Cruz as soft.

Both candidates have spent more time in Iowa than the rest of the field, but they remain near the bottom of polls and have had very little impact on the race so far.

Now, in a last-ditch effort to stop the steady stream of evangelical leaders into Cruz’s corner, Huckabee and Santorum are warning that the senator from Texas can’t be trusted on gay marriage or abortion.

Huckabee, who has 25 events scheduled in Iowa this week and 150 total in the month leading up to the caucuses, has said that conservatives are being asked to “abandon their principles” by supporting a “corporately funded candidate with no record of accomplishment.” 

The former Arkansas governor has pointed to reports of Cruz telling donors at a Manhattan fundraiser that defending the Constitution, rather than gay marriage, will be his top priority as president.

“When people hear my message, they know its going to be the same message that I’m delivering in Marshalltown, Iowa, that I would deliver in Manhattan,” Huckabee said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

A super-PAC supporting Huckabee has picked up on the attack and is running ads in Iowa called “Moral Clarity” and “Two Teds” meant to frame Cruz as a political opportunist rather than a committed social conservative.

Santorum has been hitting the airwaves with a similar message, saying that Cruz’s devotion to states’ rights on issues such as gay marriage “used to be a disqualifier in conservative circles.”

“I think most social conservatives say that there’s a law, a higher law, the natural law of what is right …  moral and just,” Santorum said on Fox News last week.

The former Pennsylvania senator released a new ad on Monday called “Fairytales” that mocks Cruz for reading “Green Eggs and Ham” on the floor of the Senate during a filibuster aimed at defunding ObamaCare.

“Ted Cruz is wonderful at reading children’s fairytales on the Senate floor,” the ad states. “Rick Santorum spent his time in the Senate a little differently.”

Some conservatives in Iowa believe the attacks could be potent, and they note that Santorum and Huckabee have mounted successful comebacks in the past,  propelled to their past wins in Iowa by the evangelical bloc. 

“The establishment Christian conservatives, the most visible ones, are behind Cruz, but the activists and worker bees in the movement have not gotten onboard with Ted Cruz’s campaign,” said Jamie Johnson, a pastor and longtime Republican operative in the state. “They talk to me and they say they don’t like him.”

Still, polls show that Cruz remains the front-runner among evangelicals in Iowa.

A Quinnipiac University survey of Iowa Republicans released in December showed Cruz with a double-digit lead among evangelicals despite the fact that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpConservatives express concern over House GOP immigration bill Poll: McSally holds 14-point lead in Arizona GOP Senate primary Trump defends Nielsen amid criticism over family separations MORE held a 4-point lead overall.

In addition to the endorsement from Vander Plaats, the president of socially conservative group The Family Leader, Cruz has the backing of national Christian leader James Dobson and is believed to be close to winning the backing of Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.

Those supporters could give Cruz the buffer he needs on questions about his social conservative bona fides, similar to how he used Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the fiercest immigration hawks on Capitol Hill, as a trump card when presidential rival Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDem scores upset over Republican in Florida county commissioner race GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border McCain, Coons: Trump should withdraw controversial refugee nominee MORE challenged his purity on immigration. 

“Bob Vander Plaats has backed the winner of the Iowa caucuses the last two times,” said Eric Woolson, a veteran of several GOP presidential campaigns in the state. “If he’s travelling the state on your behalf and speaking to grassroots conservatives, they’ll listen. That’s why he’s a kingmaker out here.”

Cruz backers see the current criticism as sour grapes from candidates upset that influential figures in Iowa have flipped their support to him.

“They’re throwing feces at the wall to see what sticks,” Deace said. “What they’re saying is that the values voters who made Cruz the only person to win three straw polls in a row are stupid. They’re saying that James Dobson, Tony Perkins and other Christian political leaders are frauds. Good luck making that case.”

But conservatives in the state note that the month before the caucuses will seem like an eternity for Cruz, who as the front-runner will face attacks from every direction.

Even Donald Trump, the GOP race’s front-runner nationally, is seeking to undercut Cruz’s standing with social conservatives, saying at rallies across Iowa that “not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba.”

Both Huckabee and Santorum have pointed to polling that showed they were still long shots in Iowa at this point in previous cycles, and some Republicans believe Rubio could be a dark horse candidate who appeals to the late-breaking evangelical vote.

Cruz has acknowledged that he’s likely to face attacks over his integrity on every front, saying that he’ll “strap on the full armor of God” as he fights back.

“There’s a point in the campaign where you go from losing the election to losing your honor,” said Deace. “Some of those making this case that Ted Cruz isn’t a committed social conservative are approaching that brink.”