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Ted Cruz isn't backing off 'God talk,' even in New Hampshire

Shifts in political thought

Political wisdom has held that religious rhetoric works in evangelical Iowa but not secular New Hampshire. But Ted Cruz is not easing up. It's one sign of how presidential campaigns are changing. 

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    A Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, sign is posted in the snow Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Washington, N.H.
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Ted Cruz has got religion, and he’s not shy about it.

In every stump speech, the freshman senator asks voters to pray. He quotes from Scripture, and speaks of Judeo-Christian values. He talks about persecuted Christians in the Middle East. And he tells the story of his father, Rafael Cruz, a Cuban refugee and evangelical preacher who is a regular on the presidential campaign trail.

Senator Cruz, a Southern Baptist from Texas, may seem out of place in the snows of New Hampshire, the second-least-church-going state in the country. But he is unabashed.

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“Lift this country up in prayer,” Cruz tells the crowd gathered in a hilltop lodge in Washington, N.H., speaking in the cadence of a preacher. “Say, ‘Father God, please continue this. Continue this revival across this country, that we can pull back from this abyss.’ ”

In the past, a candidate like Cruz might have held back on the religious rhetoric in an effort to widen his appeal in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. But times have changed. Campaign messaging has become a national enterprise, with the growth of the Internet and cable television.

While many candidates are talking about their faith openly on the campaign trail, Cruz is going furthest, and his respectable showing in New Hampshire polls suggests that his style can win converts even among those who don’t share his religious fervor.

“He was still talking to Iowa caucus-goers while he was campaigning in New Hampshire,” says Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “There was a time when candidates could run one set of ads in Iowa, and no one in New Hampshire would see them. Now you tune in to MSNBC, and you see what they’re saying in West Des Moines [Iowa], and folks in Iowa see what they’re saying in Hanover [N.H.]”

Victory in Iowa, home to the kickoff Feb. 1 caucuses, is almost essential for Cruz to have a shot at the Republican nomination. With less than two weeks to go, he and national front-runner Donald Trump are locked in a dead heat there.

In New Hampshire, Cruz faces much lower expectations, but he has to make a decent showing, to keep the momentum going. By doing a multiday bus tour through the Granite State, his first extensive visit here in two months, Cruz keeps his supporters and volunteers energized.

And his faith-toned message has not made him an also-ran here. He’s currently in a statistical dead-heat for third with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, polling at 11.3 percent according to the RealClearPolitics average of major polls.

Faith in the campaign

He is not the only Republican candidate to carry his faith outside evangelical Iowa and the South.

Senator Rubio has also been wooing religious voters aggressively. The senator, who is Roman Catholic but also attends a Southern Baptist church, recently released a television ad all about faith that struck political observers as unusually pointed. In the past, successful GOP candidates – including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush – have tended to be more circumspect in public about their religious beliefs.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a devout Episcopalian, is another candidate who makes faith references a regular part of his pitch. But his appeal in New Hampshire, where he is now polling in second place, is seen as centered on his pragmatic approach to governing – including expansion of Medicaid in his home state under the Affordable Care Act.

Then there’s Mr. Trump, a mainstream Presbyterian whose strength among Evangelicals nationally has baffled some observers, given his three marriages, profane language, and seemingly casual knowledge of the Bible.

But just as “God talk” doesn’t always turn off non-churchgoers, it is not the only way to win the faithful, either. Many Trump supporters, including the religious, value his business success, forceful personality, and status as a nonpolitician above all else. Some say God will guide him to be a successful president.

The conservative Evangelical vote, for example, is currently divided into three camps: Cruz, Trump, and Rubio, according to Thomas Kidd, a history professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

“Cruz represents the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing (referencing the late head of the Moral Majority), Trump the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing (referencing the once-popular “health and wealth” televangelist), and Rubio the ‘Billy Graham’ wing,” writes Professor Kidd in The Washington Post. Kidd notes that he is a member of Rubio’s newly announced “religious freedom advisory board.”

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks with James Dobson (r.), an evangelical Christian author, at a town hall in Winterset, Iowa, on Jan. 4. Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

But Cruz’s faith message is seen as key to his appeal. That message has been reinforced by a Cruz super-political action committee that just launched a website highlighting his religious story.

To some observers, like New York Times columnist David Brooks, Cruz’s apocalyptic rhetoric seems out of joint with Christian traditions, offering no hint of “compassion, gentleness, and mercy.”

“In a GOP primary that has become a contest to see who could be the most anti-immigrant, a little compassion for the stranger is in order,” Kidd added.

But he said he sees no reason to question the sincerity of Cruz’s faith.

'May I call you brother?'

Indeed, to many voters, Cruz’s message fits the times, given the threat of Islamic State, a dysfunctional immigration system, and economic uncertainty. Over and over, at his events in New Hampshire this week, voters said they liked his assertive, no-compromise style – and were not put off by his religion-filled appeals.

“He’s the strongest conservative, and he knows how to articulate that,” says David, an electrician from Derry, N.H., who declined to give his last name. “He’s not intimidated.”

Mary Sprenkle, a retired defense contractor worker from Stoddard, N.H., says she’s leaning toward Cruz, because “he’s the most conservative in the race and a strong supporter of the Constitution.”

Gun rights are important to her – and to many in New Hampshire, a rural hunting state with a strong libertarian streak.

For attendees at his events, Cruz’s talk about God is also an invitation to open up about matters of faith – the Yankee tendency toward reserve notwithstanding.

“May I call you brother?” asks a man named Phil, in prefacing his question to Cruz about how he would select a running mate. “I believe you’re saved, and have accepted Jesus as your savior.”

“Thank you, brother,” Cruz replies. “Don’t be embarrassed about your faith.”

Another questioner asks Cruz about restoring the Ten Commandments to public schools. That gives Cruz an opening to talk about his 2005 victory in the United States Supreme Court, as solicitor general of Texas, that allowed a monument with the Ten Commandments to remain on government property outside the state capitol.

And if Hillary Clinton wins the election, Cruz warns, the nation will wind up with a “five-justice radical leftist majority” on the Supreme Court. “We are inches away from chisels coming out to take off the crosses and Stars of David on the tombstones of our soldiers," he adds.  

After the event in the lodge, voters line up to talk to Cruz. One woman, Mandy Peña from Walpole, N.H., stands with five of her nine children, and describes herself as a Christian. “I’ve been with Cruz pretty much from the beginning, because he’s a constitutionalist,” she says.

At the end of the line stands a man clutching a Bible and wearing a Cruz sticker. Why Cruz? he is asked.

“He’s not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” says George Barbour, pastor at Berean Baptist Church in Newport, N.H., and a pilot for Delta Airlines. “Without values, we have nothing to stand on.”

After chatting with the senator, Pastor Barbour shows a reporter his Bible – freshly signed, on an inside page, by Cruz.

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