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Can Marco Rubio Appeal to Evangelicals?

GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio has been making faith a large part of his campaign. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio has been making faith a large part of his campaign. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

While Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are leading among evangelicals in national polls, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is making open appeals to them ahead of the Iowa caucuses.  

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Trump, Cruz and Rubio are appealing to disparate camps of evangelicals.  

“I would say that Ted Cruz is leading in the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading the ‘Billy Graham’ wing and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing,” Moore said, meaning that Cruz has largely followed the classic Moral Majority model that was the face of the conservative movement — he has received endorsements from figures such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson — while Trump “tends to work most closely with the prosperity wing of Pentecostalism” which tends to believe that God would financially reward believers.  

As far as Rubio’s outreach to the “Billy Graham” wing, this week the presidential hopeful announced  a religious liberty advisory board that includes Rick Warren, the founding pastor at the influential Saddleback Church.  

“He really has a grasp of theology that almost surpasses even Huckabee,” said John Stemberger, former political director of the Florida GOP, referring to another aspiring GOP candidate and minister, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.  

On Thursday, Rubio’s campaign released a video ad with him speaking personally about his faith and how it affects his daily life. In it, he said: “the purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan.”  

Jamie Johnson, a former member of the Iowa GOP state central committe who initially supported Rick Perry but is now neutral, highlighted Rubio’s support for a convention of states that would allow for term limits for members of Congress and the Supreme Court, which Johnson said would prevent liberal policies from coming through the courts.  

“It really appeals to Christian conservatives, who are a very significant voting bloc in the first-in-the-nation caucus, and will probably have some appeal to South Carolina voters,” Johnson said. He added that he’s also seen a positive reaction to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his campaign.  

A recent poll of Republican and Republican-leaning voters nationally, conducted by NBC News and Survey Monkey, found  that Trump leads among white evangelical voters with 33 percent support, while 21 percent support Cruz and 13 percent back Rubio. A poll from the Des Moines Register last month showed  Cruz in the lead in the state, with 31 percent of likely caucus-goers.  

Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of social conservative organization the Family Leader, who endorsed Cruz, noted how he has received endorsements from Dobson, Iowa Rep. Steve King and conservative talk show host Steve Deace.  

“He has united a lot of people,” Vander Plaats said.  

But Johnson said there has not yet been a consolidation behind Cruz. “Only about half of them are planning on voting for Cruz,” he said.  

There have also been some concerns about Cruz’s temperament. Tom Stockebrand, who sits on the central committee and executive committee for the Polk County GOP, and is backing Ben Carson, said Cruz’s comments about wanting to “carpet-bomb” the Islamic State might be off-putting.  

“Some people say that’s a little irresponsible,” he said.  

Jenifer Bowen, executive director of Iowa Right to Life, said Cruz has also surrounded himself with some individuals in the community who try and exert their influence.  

“There have come along supporters that do have a bully pulpit they are not afraid to use,” she said, adding that she and others had warned former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann about similar people in 2012. “That turns off a larger segment.” However, Bowen said it wasn’t necessarily a reflection on Cruz himself.  

Bowen also said some of Cruz’s supporters have not treated other social conservative candidates and former caucus winners, Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, with respect.  

Vander Plaats, who had previously endorsed former Santorum in 2012 and now backs and, said that while he likes Santorum and Huckabee, Cruz’s support isn’t necessarily against the other two.  

“I think what it is is just a different environment,” Vander Plaats said. He also said Cruz has built a strong infrastructure and doesn’t see his supporters shifting.  

Stockebrand, who said he attends a mainline Protestant church, said he believes there will still be a split.  

“There isn’t going to be a unified thing even though some leaders have come out for Cruz,” he said.  

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Jamie Johnson’s position with the Iowa Republican party.

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