- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2016

Republican front-runner Donald Trump took a beating in Iowa over his pro-choice past and faces the same rough treatment in South Carolina, where a large evangelical community can play a decisive role in the state’s first-in-the-South primary.

Sen. Ted Cruz snatched the win from Mr. Trump in Iowa’s leadoff caucuses with the help of evangelicals. And he will use the same formula to peel off religious and born-again voters in South Carolina: He will quote Scripture on the stump, tout his consistent Christian values and question Mr. Trump’s pro-life conversion and commitment to defending religious liberty.

“In the state of South Carolina, I don’t think people are interested in a Republican candidate who has pushed partial-birth abortion, who won’t defend marriage and supports big-government bailouts,” Mr. Cruz said Wednesday night on Fox News’ “The Kelly File.”

Mr. Trump hasn’t helped his cause by dropping F-bombs in his speeches and this week repeating an audience member’s slur that Mr. Cruz is a “pussy.” It’s the type of language that repels some religious-minded voters.

“There is a difference between using a curse word and blatant and profane obscenity,” said John Stemberger, a Christian conservative leader in Florida who has started a campaign urging religious voters to oppose the billionaire businessman and reality TV star. “Mr. Trump has now made it clear that he is the rated-R and sometimes rated-X candidate for president.”

In a strategy shift, the Trump campaign pulled off the air in South Carolina this week a TV ad attacking Mr. Cruz, as the bombastic billionaire adopted a more positive tone and cultivated a more presidential image befitting a front-running candidate.

The test will come when Mr. Trump must decide how to respond to attacks lodged against him.

It was attack ads focused on Mr. Trump’s previous pro-choice beliefs, including supporting partial-birth abortion, that flooded Iowa radio airwaves in the days before the caucuses, when evangelicals broke for Mr. Cruz.

It helped boost the U.S. senator from Texas from trailing Mr. Trump by about 5 points in most polls before the caucuses to topping him 27 percent to 24 percent in the final tally.

Evangelical voters accounted for 64 percent of caucusgoers in Iowa, with 34 percent of them backing Mr. Cruz and 22 percent for Mr. Trump, according to entrance surveys.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who finished third in Iowa, captured 21 percent of evangelical voters in the caucuses.

Mr. Trump handily won the primary this week in New Hampshire, a state with more moderate GOP voters and far fewer evangelicals, followed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Mr. Cruz.

In South Carolina, however, evangelical or born-again voters are expected to again make up about two-thirds of voters in the Republican primary Feb. 20.

This time Mr. Cruz has a bigger gap to close, trailing Mr. Trump by 16 points, 36 percent to 20 percent, in the RealClearPolitics average of recent Palmetto State polls.

Working in Mr. Trump’s favor is the state’s diverse population, which includes a large population of military members and military retirees with a focus on national security, as well as plenty of good ol’ boys and blue-collar workers who can be more concerned with gun rights or economic issues than social conservative caucuses.

Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said that Mr. Trump was confident his message appeals to religious voters because it appeals to everybody.

“Evangelicals are not single-issue voters. They care about job creation, homeland security, illegal immigration, repealing and replacing Obamacare — all of which are key issues of Mr. Trump’s campaign,” she said. “Evangelicals also know Mr. Trump is committed to protecting Christianity. Mr. Trump has such great respect for the evangelical community and looks forward to connecting with these voters in South Carolina.”

Mr. Cruz also is sticking with the same message, said Cruz campaign spokesman Rick Tyler, who stressed that South Carolina has an even larger evangelical community than Iowa.

Cruz’s message obviously connects to that, and the voters there are familiar with Ted Cruz’s message and comfortable with him and describe him as trustworthy, and he understands their values, and he connects with them on that level,” he said.

Echoing Mr. Cruz, he questioned whether Mr. Trump had changed his pro-choice views.

“All we have is Donald Trump’s rhetoric, but he has supported pro-choice candidates in the past and given them lots of money,” said Mr. Tyler. “He has said he is pro-choice in every way. He said that he would not ban partial-birth abortion. He has not stood up in defense of marriage, and on any number of issues that are important to evangelicals, Donald Trump does not share their values, and they don’t believe he does either.”

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