GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Many of the Republican presidential candidates descended Friday on Greenville ahead of Saturday's CBS debate.
But only one was savvy enough to get himself enlisted as the opening act of a throbbing, trembling Christian rock concert that packed 14,000 evangelicals into a downtown arena on Friday night.
So here came Ted Cruz, striding onto the catwalk of a stage, beaming under the spotlight, leading the crowd in prayer, asking them to unite behind him in next Saturday's primary election, and jumping up like a basketball player high-fiving fans as he walked into the locker rooms in the bowels of the arena.
“Welcome to Winter Jam -- and to God be the glory," the Texas senator said.
Winter Jam is a touring, four-hour show featuring born-again Christian rock and rap artists. It performed at Greenville's Bon Secours Wellness Arena on Friday night.
Ted Cruz about to address 14,000 (!) pumped up evangelicals in Greenville. Opening act of Christian arena concert pic.twitter.com/SYBIPCVdtz
— Philip Rucker (@PhilipRucker) February 12, 2016
For any Republican politician, this was a captive and prized audience. Evangelical Christians are an especially influential voting block in South Carolina, especially in the Greenville area, known as the Upcountry.
Cruz gave about six minutes of remarks and prayer at the start of the concert. He thanked the crowd "for standing unapologetically with Jesus, for confessing your faith with love."
Cruz talked about religious liberty being "under assault," but said that across the country "people are waking up."
"Our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values," Cruz said. "Those values of life and marriage are under assault, religious liberty is under assault, and yet the American people are rising up.”
Cruz did not attack any rivals, nor did he make an overt political pitch. But he cast himself as a champion of social conservative principles, from opposing abortion to advocating for traditional marriage and gun rights. And he implored the audience to unite in the primary.
“The state of SC has a long and glorious tradition of picking presidents," Cruz said. He added, "I thank each of you for the diligence with which you are assessing the candidates...If we the people stand together as one, defending our liberties, defending our values, defending who we are, we will turn this country around."
Cruz then bowed his head in prayer. He read, by memory, from Second Chronicles, 7:14, which he often cites in his stump speeches. Then he said, "Father God, we are coming to you on our knees in prayer, standing on your promises to hear those prayers, to forgive our sins and to heal this land. We claim that healing for the United States of America.
"We thank you for your bounty, for your love, for your forgiveness," he continued, "and we thank you for the precious blood of Jesus. Amen."
Update: Cruz did not have the Winter Jam stage to himself. A couple hours after Cruz appeared, Dr. Ben Carson visited the concert and gave brief remarks to the large and enthusiastic audience, weaving together themes of faith and patriotism.