At a rally that was part church revival, part Donald Trump roast, Sen. Ted Cruz argued before 1,000 supporters packed into a Baptist church that he’s the only surviving Republican candidate who can beat frontrunner Trump and end the Democrats’ hold on the White House.
Counting his seven primary and caucus victories against Trump, all but one of which came in March, Cruz said his campaign is “surging” and had a good chance to win again next week in North Carolina. It’s a state where 72 GOP delegates are at stake and where Cruz claimed – without citing any evidence – that he is now “effectively tied” with Trump. The most recent public polls had Trump in first.
Cruz faces challenges ahead. On Tuesday, Cruz finished second to Trump in Mississippi, and Trump also won in Michigan.
And next Tuesday, two of the four primaries are the home states of other GOP contenders: Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Trump was leading in polls in both states.
“We’re in the middle of March madness,” the Texas senator told the cheering crowd at Central Baptist Church in Kannapolis. “And I’m told folks in Carolina know something about that.”
The Rev. Dean Hunter, associate pastor at Central Baptist, said the church was “just facilitating the event,” not endorsing Cruz. But he said the church did not charge the campaign any rental fee for using the church.
Cruz’s visit came as North Carolina moves into the spotlight in the presidential race.
Cruz, who appears determined to match Trump’s campaign schedule in North Carolina, will return to the state on Sunday for another rally at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He’ll be joined by conservative TV host Glenn Beck and actor Chuck Norris.
Trump also reached out to NASCAR fans on Monday with a rally in Concord. He’ll hold another North Carolina rally, on Wednesday, in Fayetteville.
So far, there’s been no recent sightings in North Carolina of Rubio or Kasich, both of whom are more focused on getting those must-wins in their home states.
On the Democratic side, former president Bill Clinton campaigned for his wife on Monday, and Hillary Clinton will be in Durham and Raleigh on Thursday.
Though both Cruz and Trump have been cast as outsiders at odds with the GOP establishment, Cruz insisted that Trump is actually a liberal disguised as a conservative who has made financial contributions in the past to a long list of Democrats – including Hillary Clinton.
Cruz said he understood why Trump supporters were angry at politicians who did not deliver on their promises once they got to Washington. But, he said, “you don’t solve that problem by voting for someone who’s been enmeshed in that Washington corruption for 40 years. … Insurgents stand up to Washington, they don’t fund Washington.”
He also took a shot at Trump’s request of supporters at his rallies to raise their hands and pledge to vote for him, no matter what. That smacked of monarchy, not democracy, Cruz said to cheers.
During his turn at the microphone, conservative activist Jason Benham joked about Trump’s “cotton-candy hair.” And during Cruz’ 38-minute speech, one audience member shouted “Trump for Chump.”
Though Trump has won more primaries and delegates than Cruz, the Texas senator said he agreed with those who have predicted that the New York real estate tycoon, if nominated by the GOP, would lose big to Democrat Clinton in November.
That “absolute disaster” of a scenario, Cruz told his N.C. supporters, would have grave consequences for conservatives. With a Clinton win, he said, “we lose the Supreme Court for a generation …. and our children drown in debt.”
Cruz called on those who had backed past GOP candidates to join his team. He mentioned by name retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who, like Cruz, is popular with conservatives and evangelicals.
Cruz also put out a welcome mat for Rubio and Kasich supporters.
“If we are divided, (Trump) wins the nomination and Hillary Clinton becomes president,” Cruz said. “If we unite, that ain’t gonna happen.”
At a brief new conference after the 5 p.m. rally, Cruz disputed the fear by many in the Republican establishment that Cruz, too, would lose handily to Clinton in November. Returning to his main theme, Cruz added: “Donald Trump may well be the only candidate in the country who Hillary Clinton can beat.”
In Washington, Cruz’ willingness to filibuster – and even shut down the government – to try to stall President Obama’s Affordable Care Act has made him a gadfly among many of his fellow senators, Republican and Democrat.
But that “backbone,” as the Rev. Mark Harris of First Baptist Church of Charlotte put it in his Tuesday introduction of Cruz, is one quality that makes him popular with hard-core conservative activists, including white evangelicals who feel under siege in a country where, for example, same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states.
Diane Haas, a flight attendant from Charlotte who attended the rally, said she backs Cruz because “he’s a man of faith, he’s a Christian. And that means he’s a man of his word.”
A member of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, Haas, 62 and a registered independent, said she likes the fact that Cruz is unpopular with many of his fellow GOP senators.
“Washington is entrenched,” she said. “They’re the elites – they govern over us. They’re not part of us.”
Cruz is the top choice of white evangelical Christians who attend church frequently. So it was no surprise that he scheduled his two North Carolina rallies on Tuesday – in Kannapolis and earlier in Raleigh – at Baptist churches.
The scene at times appeared to stretch the traditional boundaries separating church and partisan politics.
At Central Baptist in Kannapolis, supporters sitting where the choir sings on Sundays held up signs reading either “Ted Cruz 2016” or “TRUSTED,” with the TED in red.
Jumbo screens in the sanctuary, reserved on Sundays for the words of hymns, pictured Cruz and the message “TEXT ‘DONATE’ to 55022.”
And as Cruz backers filed into the pews, the speakers blasted contemporary Christian music.