- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

He tops the polls in Iowa, but rather than sit on his lead Sen. Ted Cruz is running an aggressive presidential campaign targeting a swath of Southern states in what has been dubbed the “SEC Primary.”

The Texas Republican is hoping a Christmastime tour of eight states that roughly overlap the colleges that play sports in the Southeastern Conference will set him up for big victories March 1, when the primary calendar expands and states beyond the first four are allowed to hold contests. It doesn’t hurt that the South is home to a broad swath of evangelical voters and cultural conservatives receptive to Mr. Cruz’s message.

“These are Southern states, these are conservative states,” Mr. Cruz said in Knoxville, Tennessee, this week. “We’ve got military veterans. We’re gun owners who love God.”

The trip, which kicked off late last week, is Mr. Cruz’s second concerted effort in the region. A summer bus tour included stops in Alabama, Mississippi and his home state of Texas.

This time, Mr. Cruz took to the air, starting with stops in Nevada and Minnesota before heading south to Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas, and ending in Oklahoma on Wednesday.

Donald Trump also has created some buzz in the South with well-attended rallies. Some political observers say a couple of Floridians, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, also could make noise in the Super Tuesday contests.

Mr. Cruz is well-poised to take advantage of the social conservatives who dominate the Republican Party in the South and is trying to woo libertarian-leaning tea party types.

Just ahead of his trip, he announced endorsements from Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Christian group Iowa Family Leader; the National Organization for Marriage; and James Dobson, a national evangelical leader.

Their embrace could help Mr. Cruz woo voters in places like Tennessee, where exit polls from the 2012 presidential primary showed 76 percent of voters identified as born-again or evangelical Christian.

Julie Hannah Taleghani, chairwoman of the Williamson County Republican Party in Tennessee, said Mr. Cruz’s message on faith and family and calls for a smaller, more business-friendly government is resonating with voters.

“He is speaking to those issues that are on the hearts and minds of Tennessee voters,” said Mrs. Taleghani, who is uncommitted in the race.

She said Mr. Trump and Mr. Rubio are favorites of grass-roots activists but that Mr. Cruz is the first to organize in the state and has made more trips there than any other candidate.

The Cruz campaign says that applies to most of the early primary states.

“We are the only ones that are organized and funded all the way up until March 15,” said Rick Tyler, a Cruz campaign spokesman. “I don’t know if any other campaign has both those assets going for them.”

There are 565 bound delegates — who are obligated to vote in line with their state’s primary or caucus outcomes — up for grabs in the SEC primary states, compared with 130 in the four carve-out states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, which kick off the nomination contest in that order.

Geoffrey Skelley, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Mr. Cruz is smart to focus on the “SEC primary” because he will need strong performances in those contests to have a shot at the nomination.

Mr. Skelley said a strong showing from Mr. Cruz in Iowa could push other social conservatives — including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — out of the race and diminish the appeal for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has faded in polls.

“Thus, winning Iowa could allow Cruz to consolidate support among white evangelical Christian voters, which would position him to compete for the South Carolina primary crown,” Mr. Skelley said, adding that few people expect him to win New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.

“Should he win both Iowa and South Carolina, Cruz would enter the March 1 SEC primary flying high with a number of states that might be very friendly to him because of the strong role white evangelicals will play on that day,” he said.

The general consensus is that Mr. Cruz is hoping a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1 could help him consolidate his support among evangelical Christian voters heading into South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary Feb. 27 and Super Tuesday states a few days later.

“We have a candidate who is doing very well with the evangelical vote, who is very well-positioned in Iowa and South Carolina and also throughout the Southern states, and [Super Tuesday] is going to be the biggest day for delegates,” Mr. Tyler said.

“If we can do well on March 1, that is going to put a lot of pressure on candidates because when you can’t demonstrate an early win your supporters start to look elsewhere and donors start to close up checkbooks,” he said.

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