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For Cruz, evangelical landscape in South Carolina is more complex

Understanding voters

Ted Cruz’s message combining biblical and constitutional values speaks most directly to older Christians. But South Carolina has many younger Christians, too, who aren't comfortable with such an approach.

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    Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz greets supporters at a campaign event in Columbia, S.C., Feb. 16, 2016.
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Kay McClanahan beamed with excitement and affection for the man she prays will become president. She was watching presidential candidate Ted Cruz deliver a nearly 40-minute critique of what he called the feckless and value-challenged country that President Obama has wrought.

“I think he’s trying to ... go by Christ, and he said he’d abide by the Bible in his decisions,” Mrs. McClanahan, in her early 70s, says of Senator Cruz. “If you do that, what else can you ask for?”

Cruz’s message combining biblical and constitutional values speaks most directly to voters such as McClanahan – older Christians who pine for values lost and see Cruz as a restorer of American mores. They shake their heads at Donald Trump, a twice-divorced billionaire best known as a TV personality, and delight in Cruz’s unvarnished pitch to guide America through tough times by relying hand in hand on the Bible and Constitution.

While wooing those voters was a winning recipe in Iowa, Cruz may find his path to victory in South Carolina – or a strong second-place finish, as Mr. Trump leads significantly among all groups – complicated by the nature of Christian Evangelicals in the South, a more diverse group.

“The situation is even more complex when one moves outside of Iowa,” says Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The older religious right tends to think in terms of a Christian America – America is in a special covenant with God. The younger generation would see that as heresy.”

Dr. Moore explains that Gospel-centered Christians – younger individuals – believe the Bible bars leaders from mixing Christian tenets with civic duty.

More of both groups exist in South Carolina, he says, and Cruz’s challenge will be to appeal to a wider group. Cruz, for his part, has been deliberate in appealing to those older voters. His father, Rafael Cruz, a pastor, has been a steady presence in the state for months to make the case for his son, who is a Texas senator and Southern Baptist.

South Carolinian Christians say, “if there are two or three Evangelicals gathered together, Rafael Cruz shall be there,” says Randy Page, a spokesman for Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., who says he is not representing the school in discussing his views on the presidential race. “They have been omnipresent around the state.”

Cruz’s strategy has its benefits, as older voters tend to show up at the polls, which could lead to a Cruz surge on Saturday, the day of South Carolina's primary. Cruz’s national press secretary, Catherine Frazier, did not respond to a request for comment this week.

Moore sees an opportunity for Marco Rubio with many of those younger voters who don’t want to combine biblical values with constitutional ones – and are also more likely to see direct appeals to their faith as pandering.

After careful consideration, Mr. Page, the Bob Jones employee, says he’ll support Senator Rubio. But his religious social circle is all over the map, he says, supporting Jeb Bush and Ben Carson, as well as Rubio and Cruz. The race may be more fluid than some think, he says: Friends have been texting him to ask for information about certain issues and candidates.

Rubio speaks to the younger set of the Christian right because he is able to more broadly evangelize on Christianity’s virtues, supporters say. Page says he was impressed when he saw a video of Rubio answering a question from an Iowa atheist in terms that expressed his faith-driven views without a divisive tone.

Similarly, Moore says that a pair of videos featuring Rubio addressing a black man, posted by blogger Justin Taylor, have resonated in Christian circles in recent days.

Cruz’s appeal is more straightforward. For his supporters at the Columbia event, tying in the Bible and the Constitution is what they want to hear. The crowd of several hundred (small by Trump standards even for an afternoon event) roared when former Texas Gov. Rick Perry compared Cruz’s approach to that of an Air Force pilot’s preflight checklist routine.

Although the analogy also went over well because of the number of veterans in the crowd, Mr. Perry assured them that Cruz operates from two checklists: “the Bible and the United States Constitution.” Not so long ago, it was Perry who made a similar appeal during his own failed presidential campaign.

Baron Buzhardt, the owner of a South Carolina lumber company, says he doesn’t know whom he’d support aside from Cruz. “He’s straight on,” says Mr. Buzhardt, who is in his 50s. “He’s the most biblical and constitutional. That’s what’s supposed to run the country. Religion and the Constitution.”

Evangelicals make up, according to polls, as much as 65 percent of the GOP electorate in South Carolina. Experts caution that sweeping characterizations of evangelical voters are bound to be overly simplistic: Their concerns and stances are as varied as the GOP itself.

That said, evangelical voters nearly all agree on the group’s so-called gateway issues – views against abortion and same-sex marriage.

Trump has perhaps best addressed the concerns around economic security and immigration that are paramount for many Christians and GOP voters across the board, experts say. Those voters appear to be the most eager to propel the real estate mogul forward. Trump also speaks to voters who “feel politicians in general have taken advantage of them for years,” Page says.

The 2016 primary cycle’s focus on celebrity and anger – the Trump phenomenon – may make the other campaign styles – Cruz’s unambiguous appeal to the Christian right and Rubio’s softer, more centrist message – somewhat moot, Moore says.

“Does Donald Trump swamp them both given the dynamics of this year?” Moore asks.

Cruz has faced his own criticism in the race and may have hurt his chances through what critics called dirty tricks in Iowa. He has also been on the defensive about a false Facebook post that indicated Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina had switched his allegiance from Rubio to Cruz. Representative Gowdy has demanded the Cruz campaign denounce the statement.

For the Cruz faithful in Columbia, the candidate’s orderly, direct speech reached a crescendo when he addressed what a Cruz administration would do to wage war on Islamic terrorists. He promised a “holy wrath on anyone who would declare war on this nation.”

The crowd roared.

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