DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Known nationally as a fiery fiscal conservative, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz channeled his pastor father and displayed his religious side Tuesday, telling an influential group of Iowa home school advocates that America was founded on Christian values Washington can't deny.
The tea party darling's declaration of his beliefs came during his fourth trip to Iowa in barely eight months — and though he has refused to comment on a possible 2016 White House run, Cruz logging so much face time in the state that kicks off presidential voting hasn't gone unnoticed.
"There is no liberty more important than religious liberty," said Cruz in his keynote speech at the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators' annual state Capitol lobbying day. He later added: "This nation was founded by men and women fleeing religious oppression and coming here seeking the freedom to seek out our lord God almighty with all of our hearts, minds and souls, free of the government getting in the way."
Cruz's father was born in Cuba but is now a pastor in the suburbs of Dallas. His son has made no secret of his religious faith since joining the Senate last January, but rarely makes it a centerpiece as he did Tuesday.
"We have never seen an administration with such hostility toward religious faith," Cruz told a crowd of more than 500 parents and many of the children they teach at home. Some of the children scribbled on coloring sheets featuring religiously themed lessons on America's Founding Fathers.
Cruz pointed to what he said was the Internal Revenue Service under the Obama White House forcing religious groups to divulge more information for tax purposes. His sentiments were often met by calls of "Amen!" and "Praise God!"
The first-term Texas senator has now come to Iowa more than any of the other Republicans mentioned as possible presidential contenders, except for fellow tea party-backed U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. But Cruz's brand of social conservatism may excite much of the party's base more easily than Paul's Libertarian ideals.
Cruz also is speaking at a GOP fundraiser in Mason City during this visit. He addressed the Iowa Republican Party's annual Ronald Reagan dinner in October and met with Christian conservatives during two Iowa swings last summer.
He rocketed to national fame with conservative grass-roots groups for staging a 21-plus hour quasi-filibuster in opposition to the new federal health care law that eventually helped spark last year's government shutdown.
"He understands that we don't fight a battle because it's winnable but because it's worthy," said Vicki Crawford, an organizer of Tuesday's event.
The support of home school advocates helped the last two Republicans win Iowa's presidential caucus: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in 2012.
Cruz, however, will likely need to woo other conservative blocs if he is going to succeed in Iowa, where some traditional Republicans haven't been thrilled with his firebrand ways. A veterans' group sponsored a full-page ad in Tuesday's Des Moines Register demanding that Cruz explain his past opposition to the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which promotes biofuel produced in Iowa.
And U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who leads the Democratic National Committee, called Cruz the Republican Party's "new face"— even a year after GOP Chairman Reince Priebus presented recommendations on how the party can broaden its appeal to non-traditional Republicans.
"The tea party clearly has had a stranglehold over the Republican agenda and Ted Cruz has been driving that agenda," Wasserman Schultz said.
Still, Jamie Johnson, a member of the Iowa GOP's State Central Committee and former top Iowa adviser to Santorum in 2012, said he spoke with Cruz about tweaking his economics-heavy message to best win over Iowa conservatives.
"You've got to enunciate the moral themes here," Johnson said, "and if you don't, you lose."