DES MOINES — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz looked the part when he stepped onstage at the National Religious Liberties Conference here in Iowa Friday, dressed in ‘preacher casual’ — khakis and a jacket, no tie — and gesturing vigorously as he spoke through a headset microphone.
“The last election, 2012, 54 million evangelicals stayed home. Fifty-four million,” the GOP presidential candidate told the crowd of about 1,500. “Is it any wonder the federal government is waging a war on life, on marriage, on religious liberty when Christians are staying home and our leaders are being elected by nonbelievers?”
The audience, which met him with frequent standing ovations during his 15-minute remarks, represented the types of voters many of Cruz's Republican rivals are eager to court ahead of February’s Iowa caucuses: the white, evangelical conservatives who have held enormous sway in the Hawkeye State in previous election cycles.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has thus far captured the affections of those voters — and it’s not even close. A CNN/ORC poll released Friday showed Carson with 31 percent support among white evangelicals, a double-digit lead over Donald Trump, who took 20 percent support, and Cruz, who followed with 15 percent support.
But as Carson and Trump, neither of whom has ever held elected office before, work to steady themselves after waves of negative media attention, it is exceedingly clear that Cruz would benefit most if — and some strategists say, “when” — the two celebrity "outsider" candidates drop out of the nominating contest.
Joining the Texas firebrand at the conference were Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, whose political points differed sharply: while Cruz spent the bulk of his remarks casting aspersions at Democratic Party goals, Jindal and Huckabee repeatedly asked voters to reject the anti-experience rhetoric that has vaulted Trump and Carson to the top of the Republican field.
“I’ve never had a job in Washington so don’t blame me for the failures of Washington. But I do believe that it’s important to have somebody who can articulate our vision and message, somebody who has had the experience of working a political climate that is extraordinarily hostile.” Huckabee told the audience, receiving mixed approval.
The former Baptist preacher, reliably nimble with metaphors, added during a gaggle with reporters later: “ Is the presidency an entry-level job? If it is, then elect whoever you want. I realize a lot of people say, ‘We don’t want experience!’ Ok, fine. But you won’t even hire someone to mow your lawn that’s never started a lawnmower.”
Jindal, wearing a blue shirt tucked into light-wash jeans, made the contrast more directly: “A lot of candidates talk about what they’re going to do; I’m the only one who has done it.”
Carson’s standing in the polls appeared threatened Friday after an article by Politico emerged accusing the candidate of lying about admission to West Point, a central part of his biography. Carson has defended himself against the accusations and dismissed them as part of a media witch hunt.
Cruz, who stands to gain most from Trump or Carson would-be political defeats, pointedly avoided piling on.
“Oh listen, I’m a big fan of Ben Carson. Ben and Candy [Carson] have become really good friends. I know there’s a big media kerfuffle about it,” Cruz told reporters. “I don’t know what happened but I can tell you this: I like and trust Ben Carson, I’m very glad he’s running. I think he’s an extraordinary man with extraordinary values.”
Conference-goers for the most part steered clear of discussing politics — at least to reporters — and many said they had yet to make up their minds about whom to support. But if the tone of the room was any indication, Cruz was the clear favorite.
“Any president who doesn’t begin everyday on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief,” Cruz said, rewarded with applause. “We’re a nation that has enjoyed God’s blessing, providential blessing, from the very beginning.”