WEST DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — In Iowa, the evangelical vote can make or break a campaign — which is why both Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are battling over support from the most conservative voters, as the race heats up ahead of the state's leadoff caucus.
Cruz courted hundreds of social conservatives and evangelical voters who packed a Wednesday night rally, where he touted his anti-abortion beliefs while drawing sharp contrasts with Trump and his record on a variety of issues, including changing his position on abortion. Cruz also suggested that Trump doesn't have the humility or temperament to be president.
Winning evangelical voters — who catapulted underdog candidates to victory in Iowa in 2008 and 2012 — is essential for Cruz to do well when Iowans vote on Monday.
"If evangelical pastors move the pews to the caucuses, then Ted Cruz wins Iowa," said David Lane, an influential activist who has organized events across Iowa where Cruz and other Republican candidates have addressed pastors.
On Monday, Cruz addressed about 250 pastors in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. He gave his own assessment of where he sees the race, should Trump prevail in Iowa.
"If Donald wins Iowa, he right now has a substantial lead in New Hampshire," Cruz told Iowa pastors at the closed-door meeting, a comment first reported by the Christian Broadcasting Network and confirmed by Lane. "If he went on to win New Hampshire as well, there is a very good chance he could be unstoppable and be our nominee."
A day later, Cruz offered a different view while speaking to reporters, downplaying the need to secure a win in Iowa.
"We are running a national campaign," Cruz said in Albia, Iowa. "From the beginning we've said no state is a must win for us."
Lane said Cruz needs to win Iowa to stop Trump, and to do that, his evangelical supporters must turn out come caucus day.
But Trump, the current national front-runner in most preference polls, is starting to show strength among evangelicals at the same time that other more establishment Republicans are also warming to his candidacy.
Trump has been appearing at Christian colleges, including a convocation speech at Liberty University, one of the country's most prominent evangelical Christian institutions, last week. He received a glowing introduction from Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the school, who formally endorsed Trump on Tuesday. On Saturday, Trump was joined on the campaign trail by the Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, a megachurch.
Trump also paid a visit to church on Sunday, which his team invited a handful of journalists to document.
Asked why he was making gains with evangelicals, Trump said at a news conference Tuesday in Marshalltown, Iowa, it was because voters "understand I'm a Christian. I'm a good Christian."
On several occasions, Trump has flashed a copy of the Bible and a photo of his confirmation at events as proof of his piety.
Cruz, meanwhile, has worked diligently to line up support from pastors in all 99 Iowa counties. He secured the backing of James Dobson, former leader of the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family, who campaigned with him in Iowa earlier this month. This week, he won the endorsement of Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobbying group in Washington. Perkins, along with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry who framed his two failed presidential bids on an effort to assert more conservative values, joined Cruz at Wednesday's rally that attracted hundreds of people in an overflowing event hall.
Bob Vander Plaats, a well-known leader among Christian conservatives in Iowa, also endorsed Cruz, and has been tapping his vast network of evangelicals for support while campaigning alongside the candidate.
Trump lashed out at Vander Plaats on Tuesday via Twitter, calling him a "phony" and a "bad guy." Vander Plaats assailed Trump at Wednesday's rally for the second time in as many days, saying the former reality TV star doesn't hold true conservative values.
"The sanctity of human life is not up for the art of the deal," Vander Plaats said, referring to the title of Trump's book, "The Art of the Deal."
Cruz tried to cast the interplay as an example of Trump's inability to grasp the needs of true conservative voters.
"When you start vilifying and demonizing and attacking strong conservative leaders because they choose not to support you, that starts to communicate an awful lot to the men and women who are watching," Cruz said in Ottumwa, Iowa, on Tuesday.
A political action committee backing Cruz has also gone after Trump with a similar theme, this week launching a $2.5 million television ad buy in both Iowa and South Carolina.
"Donald Trump is not a conservative," one of the ads charges before looping in archival footage of the billionaire businessman from 1999, declaring: "I am pro-choice in every respect."
Trump says he has since changed his position and opposes abortion rights.
Trump's campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in a statement Wednesday that he is now "pro-life" and that his "core conservative values are unwavering." She highlighted Falwell's endorsement, as well as that of conservative firebrand Sarah Palin and Phyllis Schlafly, a longtime conservative activist who backed Cruz's 2012 Senate run.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Des Moines contributed to this report.
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