One of the critical battles going on beneath the radar is the battle between Ben Carson and Ted Cruz for the Evangelical, and I’d say conservative Catholic, vote. While Trump is trolling everyone in sight to earn free media and Marco Rubio is picking Jeb Bush’s moldering bones, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have been carrying on a polite, gentlemanly, and low key war. The winner of this fight could very easily become the nominee.
The hearts of many evangelical voters, polls suggest, are with Ben Carson. But increasingly, their leaders’ heads are with Ted Cruz.
While the Texas senator trails the retired pediatric neurosurgeon by double digits in national surveys, prominent evangelical leaders and political operatives who work with the Christian conservative movement say it’s the well-funded Cruz who has made the bigger organizational effort with politically active church goers.
He’s rounding up the very grass-roots leaders who wield influence with this crucial Republican voting bloc. And here in Iowa, where endorsements have often predicted caucus winners, that matters.
“Cruz has got a lot of people on the ground who can historically move numbers,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent and still unaligned conservative in Iowa who is hosting a major cattle-call for Republican presidential candidates on Friday night. Vander Plaats in previous cycles attached his endorsement to the candidate who ultimately won the Iowa caucuses, and this time, he is thought to be leaning toward Cruz.
Meanwhile, Carson, a newcomer to politics, is running an untraditional campaign in every sense — including in how he courts the religious faithful. Carson, who speaks particularly openly about his personal faith, approaches voters here with a heart-on-his sleeve style, but he hasn’t made engaging their political leaders a priority.
Tony Perkins, among the most influential evangelical leaders in the country, told CNN earlier this week of Carson: “He’s not built relationships with conservative leaders. I don’t know that he’s actually looking for endorsements from conservative leaders. He may have a different approach to his campaign.”
According to POLITICO, conservatives and evangelicals in Iowa are moving from Dr. Ben Carson to Senator Ted Cruz.
Hours after terrorists attacked a hotel in Mali and a week after Islamic State fighters struck Paris, [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ] took the floor here to deliver a harsh critique of President Obama’s Middle East posture and pledge a hardline approach to Syrian Muslim refugees.
It was exactly what this crowd of mostly conservative Christians wanted – and an ominous sign for Iowa’s weakened frontrunner, Ben Carson.
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Across the state and at a major gathering of politically active evangelicals on Friday night, foreign policy was top-of-mind for the voters and state lawmakers once considered natural constituents for Carson. But after a week of confused comments from the former neurosurgeon and a dismissive critique by his own advisors, Iowans are now consistently voicing doubt about Carson’s credentials to be commander-in-chief.
Indeed, they said the terrorist attacks have reordered the candidates in their mind, lifting Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio and, for many, making Carson an afterthought.
“He’s a great guy, he’s fun to listen to, but I didn’t hear anything substantive,” said Alan Hilgerson, a Des Moines-based physician who said national security is an “extremely high” priority for him as he considers the 2016 contenders vying for Iowa. Of Carson, he continued, “I don’t know that I’d want him as my president.”
Worse yet for Carson, at the Family Leader Forum organized by social-conservative icon Bob Vander Plaats, voters said the more they thought about Carson’s foreign policy credentials, the less comfortable they were with him.
Anecdote isn’t data but this makes a lot of sense. Ben Carson’s real appeal is his inherent decency and compelling life story as an anecdote to the miasma of corruption, malfeasance, and sense of privilege and entitlement that hangs over the Obama White House like the stench of a corpse’s armpit. So long as ISIS was a distant and minor issue, Carson’s “niceness” was good enough for a lot of people. After last Friday’s attack in Paris, terrorism and foreign policy ideas are more central to everyone’s campaign. Consider, only a week ago the big issue among the candidates was immigration… of the non-terrorist variety.
Influential Iowa vote-broker [mc_name name=’Rep. Steve King (R-IA)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’K000362′ ], who endorsed Cruz last week, pointed to a new online NBC poll that showed Carson dropping, and said he attributed that slip to renewed interest in national security and Carson’s struggles with the issue. Polls conducted by more traditional methods will provide a fuller picture in coming weeks.
“They’ll often say, all politics are local, politics are domestic, domestic politics will elect the next president. I’m not sure that’s right. Not when you see the pictures of the bodies in places like Paris and around the world, Beirut, now Mali today,” King said. “When we see that, and we’re almost guaranteed that’s going to continue until we defeat [terrorists], that makes a candidate that’s strong on foreign policy, strong on national defense…that makes that candidate stronger.”
“Being [from] outside the Beltway doesn’t help with that. Being inside the Beltway, as long as you’re not ruled by that, I think does help,” King said.
In interviews with voters and activists at stops in conservative western Iowa and then at the presidential forum in Des Moines, it was clear they do not see Carson as equally up to the challenge. In fact, the characteristics once cited by voters here as boosting Carson – his soft-spoken nature and disinterest in attacking his competition, for example — are now seen as problematic.
“Carson, he’s a wonderful guy, but we like Cruz better,” said Judy Kirby of Des Moines, who said she is gravely concerned about foreign policy in the wake of several high-profile terrorist attacks. Cruz “seems more knowledgeable, he seems stronger.”
As several of our contributors have noted (read this by Kimberly R. for the best run down) Carson seems not merely unfamiliar with most foreign policy issues but rather incurious about them as well.
But it isn’t just foreign policy. Many have said that the closer the voters get to making a decision the more likely they are to leave Trump and Carson and gravitate to someone who looks like he can govern if he wins. In that contest, Cruz beats Carson handily. In addition, [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ] engages Evangelicals where they live because he is one:
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Friday night offered a wide-ranging appeal to evangelicals in this key presidential proving ground, opting for humor, solemnity — and an unambiguous pitch for his viability as the GOP’s presidential nominee.
“If the body of Christ rises up as one and votes our values, we can turn this country around,” Cruz said as he drive home his mantra that more Christians need to show up the polls — and he is the candidate to inspire them.
In one of the most stirring moments, Cruz recalled one time when he asked God for forgiveness: He was a student in law school and his parents were on the verge of divorce. Citing the sin of pride, Cruz said he thought he could keep his mom and dad together, printing out “page after page of scripture” and sending it to them in hopes they would reconsider.
“I was convinced somehow I could stop it,” Cruz said, “and I think that was hurtful to my parents.”
Cruz’s parents would eventually go through with the divorce. It’s a part of his biography that rarely comes up on the campaign trail — and one that brought silence over a crowd of hundreds listening to him at The Family Leader’s Presidential Family Forum.
If continued action by ISIS turns this campaign into a foreign policy election, Ben Carson is going to find it very, very difficult to survive and his supporters are going to find a home with Ted Cruz.