ROCK HILL, SC (Tim Funk/The Charlotte Observer) - With the national political spotlight shifting to the Bible Belt, Republican presidential candidates camped out in South Carolina have begun stepping up their campaigns to win over evangelicals – a group that's expected to make up nearly 60 percent of the vote in the state's GOP primary on Feb. 20.
On Thursday night, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson spoke about issues such as religious liberty, traditional marriage and abortion to about 500 people attending the "Carolina Values Summit" at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. Cruz, whose win in the Iowa caucuses was credited to his support among evangelicals, ended the evening with a rally at Morningstar Fellowship Church in Fort Mill that also featured conservative TV-radio host Glenn Beck.
At the Winthrop gathering, Cruz pledged that, if elected, he would instruct the U.S. Justice Department on his first day of office to open an investigation of Planned Parenthood.
The Texas senator also blasted the "five unelected judges" on the U.S. Supreme Court for voting last year to legalize same-sex marriage. "Contrary to popular wisdom, the Supreme Court did not invent marriage," Cruz said. "It was ordained by God as the union of one man and one woman."
Carson, who got the most enthusiastic welcome from the audience, said he would be a president who respected the Judaic-Christian values "that were at the foundation at the founding of this country."
He also extolled religion, patriotism and morality – "the things that are under attack. And the only ones who can fix that are we, the people."
Pastors, conservative activists and political scientists in South Carolina say Cruz is the clear favorite among what one called "hard-core, conservative-movement" evangelicals. But the consensus among these observers is that evangelical voters overall have rarely been a monolithic bloc in the South Carolina primary and won't be this year.
"Evangelicals here spread their vote out. They do not coalesce. In Iowa, they do," said Scott Huffman, a political scientist at Winthrop University and director of the Winthrop Poll. "In South Carolina, evangelicals are a key part of any winning coalition, but they are not a singular constituency that can be grabbed by any one candidate."
At a time when same-sex marriage is legal and ISIS is beheading Christians overseas, white evangelical voters in the state share feelings of anger at Washington and antipathy toward President Barack Obama, Huffman and the others said. But there is disagreement among these churchgoers about which Republican candidate in the race would be most likely to push back and get results after November.
"There's an overall sense that the country is falling apart and weak. And they're ready for something new and different," said the Rev. Steve Hogg, senior pastor at 2,800-member First Baptist Church of Rock Hill. "(But) evangelicals are pretty divided on who to support … on who is the right person to get the job done."
Four years ago, evangelical voters in South Carolina voted their wallets over hot-button culture war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. At the time, the state had an unemployment rate of 11.1 percent – the fourth-highest in the country. In 2012, Newt Gingrich, who had been married three times, still managed to win the state's Republican primary.
This year, in the wake of everything from same-sex marriage to changing demographics to the decline in religious affiliation to home-grown terrorism, many evangelicals "feel kind of lost in their own country," said Furman University professor Jim Guth.
This push by the GOP candidates to get their slice of the evangelical vote will be on display again Friday at Bob Jones University, a a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville. There, Cruz and Carson are slated to speak – along with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – at a "Faith and Family Forum" co-sponsored by the Palmetto Family Alliance.
Trump tops polls
That group's executive director, Oran Smith, held out the possibility that one more candidate could show up: real estate tycoon Donald Trump. His campaign, Smith said, "is sounding interested" in the forum.
Riding high after his easy win in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, Trump has long been the leader in South Carolina polls – thanks, in part, to support from evangelicals.
In the latest Winthrop Poll, released in December, 22 percent of evangelicals favored Trump, compared with 17 percent each for Cruz and Carson.
Since then, some Christian conservative leaders have blasted Trump on several fronts – for attributing a Bible passage to "Two Corinthians" instead of "Second Corinthians," for publicly supporting abortion rights just a few years ago, and for recently using a crude word to describe rival Cruz.
And yet, many rank-and-file evangelicals in South Carolina appear willing to look past those transgressions – not to mention Trump's three marriages and his boastful style – because of what they consider his strong tell-it-like-it-is leadership qualities.
"I almost think they see Trump as this secular instrument who will get back their religious freedom," Smith said. "He may not be sounding evangelical themes. But evangelicals see the culture slipping away, and I've heard some of them say, 'I'm electing a president, not a preacher.' We need someone to get us from Point A to Point B."
Guth, who co-edited "The Oxford Handbook on Religion and American Politics," agreed that for many evangelicals, Trump's leadership style may end up counting the most.
"Evangelical Protestants put a pretty high premium on leadership," Guth said. "The strong, take-charge pastor has always been at the center of their churches. They may want the same in a political leader."
To reach evangelicals, Trump's campaign has run a radio ad in South Carolina touting his recent endorsement by Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, a prominent evangelical school in Virginia. Falwell is also the son of the late leader of the Moral Majority, who pioneered evangelicals' involvement in GOP politics in the 1970s and 1980s.
"Like Mr. Trump, Dad would speak his mind," the younger Falwell says in the ad. "He would make statements that were politically incorrect. He speaks the truth publicly, even if it is uncomfortable for people to hear it."
That view was echoed Thursday by Charlie Ruffalo, a Rock Hill businessman who attended the event at Winthrop. "I like that Trump doesn't speak like a politician," said Ruffalo, 59, who is still undecided in the GOP primary. "He still has a lot of explaining to do (about his plans), but he has brought some things to the political arena that nobody else has."
Cruz, meanwhile, is stressing his own personal faith as well as his family's strong ties to pastors and other evangelical leaders in South Carolina and around the country.
In a TV ad last year that served as an introduction to Cruz, South Carolinians saw the senator praying over a meal with his family and heard him offer a testimony about his father, Rafael, whose born-again experience led to a career as an evangelical preacher.
"Were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ," said narrator Cruz, "I would have been raised by a single mom without my father in the household. … God's blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation."
Bush, who is Catholic, has stressed his record against abortion and Planned Parenthood while governor of Florida. His campaign also recently announced its South Carolina Faith Leaders Coalition, whose co-chairs include the former chief of chaplains in the U.S. Air Force.
Rubio and Carson, too, have been reaching out to conservative Christians with personal religious testimonies and alliances in the evangelical community.
Smith said Rubio is popular with many young evangelicals and among those looking for an alternative to anti-establishment Cruz and establishment-friendly Bush.
"They want someone with less of a hard edge (than Cruz) but someone who still means business and who is not named Bush," Smith said.
As for Carson – a retired pediatric surgeon who has faded in the polls since leading many of them last year – he appears to be more admired than supported by evangelical voters.
"People respect and like him a lot, but they don't see him as someone who can win," said Pastor Hogg. "In the end, they want someone who can win and get results."
Social issues are again important to evangelicals, said Smith, but now they are part of a broader concern about the role of the federal government, including the courts and religious liberty.
In the December Winthrop Poll of likely South Carolina voters, 78 percent of the Christian respondents said they believed there is some or a great deal of discrimination against Christians in America today.
Evangelicals want a president, said Hogg, who will push back against the change and "not allow what Obama has done to be in cement."