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Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. endorses Trump

Republican candidate Donald Trump stated his intentions to "protect Christianity" as president when speaking at Liberty University on Jan. 18. (Video: Reuters)
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Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of the late televangelist, endorsed Donald Trump on Tuesday, giving the Republican front-runner the blessing of one of the evangelical community’s biggest names just days before the Iowa caucuses.

In a statement, Falwell called Trump “a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”

Falwell’s move has long been expected since he has showered praise on the billionaire in recent weeks and developed a rapport with him. But the timing of the formal announcement is significant, coming as Trump and Ted Cruz compete intensely in Iowa for the support of social conservatives.

“It is truly an honor to receive Jerry’s endorsement. Not only is he a high-quality person, with a wonderful family, whom I have great respect for — I also consider him a very good friend and his support means so much to me,” Trump said in a statement.

Coming a week after evangelical favorite Sarah Palin endorsed Trump, Falwell represents the latest attempt by Trump to cut into Cruz’s deep support among born-again Christians nationwide and showcase his own popularity with prominent people of faith.

Falwell, in particular, has a Cruz connection: When the U.S. senator from Texas launched his presidential campaign last year, he did so at Liberty University.

Video: Ted Cruz, launching his presidential bid at Liberty University

Trump’s appeals to religious voters, however, have gone beyond splashy endorsements. On the campaign trail in Iowa, he now begins rallies with a prayer. In Sioux City and Pella, the prayer was offered by Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress. And on Sunday, Trump attended a Presbyterian service where he met with churchgoers and posed for pictures.

The Falwell endorsement came together over the course of several months, with the school leader and Trump exchanging private phone calls, according to Republicans familiar with the relationship. By late last year, Falwell was publicly encouraging Trump, even though he held off on an endorsement. “Trump reminds me so much of my father,” he said in a December interview with Fox News.

When Trump appeared on Jan. 18 at Liberty, a Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., Falwell’s introduction was effusive.

Trump received a glowing welcome from Falwell – but not everyone was convinced

“In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” Falwell said.

“He cannot be bought, he's not a puppet on a string like many other candidates ... who have wealthy donors as their puppet masters,” he added.

Falwell then spoke of his father’s support for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, an affiliation that was controversial in some evangelical circles because Reagan’s opponent in the 1980 election, then-President Jimmy Carter, was a devout Southern Baptist.

“When he walked into the voting booth, he wasn’t electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs; he was electing the president of the United States with the talents, abilities and experience required to lead a nation,” Falwell said of his father. “After all, Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday school teacher, but look at what happened to our nation with him in the presidency. Sorry.”

As Trump took the stage, he shook Falwell's hand and embraced him. "To be compared to his father, just a little bit, to be compared to his father is really an honor for me, so I want to thank Jerry for saying that,” Trump told the crowd.

The Trump campaign has since cut the audio of Falwell’s remarks into a 60-second radio ad.

Liberty, a massive and influential Christian university with 14,000 on-campus students and 66,000 enrolled online, has net assets worth more than $1 billion and is known for its conservative culture. Students live by a strict code of conduct: No alcohol, no sex outside of marriage, no shorts in class. Three times a week all students are required to attend "convocation," a loud, highly produced religious gathering that features guest speakers.

Why Liberty University has become a pilgrimage site for GOP candidates

Although the university is forbidden from taking stances on political issues as a condition of its tax-exempt status, Liberty is often at the epicenter of Republican politics. The elder Falwell, who died in 2007, was a blunt-spoken man who led a "Moral Majority" political movement.

Falwell’s endorsement is an explicitly personal one, the Trump campaign said.

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U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at Trump Doral golf course in Miami, Florida, U.S. July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)