Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have been sparring over national security and immigration policy as their rivalry intensifies in the Republican presidential primary race. Now their conflict is moving toward a new battlefield – the Christian vote, and a powerful Iowa evangelical constituency that Rubio is looking to win over.
Cruz and Rubio will appear Friday with a group of candidates at a forum hosted by the Family Leader, a prominent Iowa Christian organization that is expected to draw roughly 1,500 people to its event.
With support from pastors around the state and a recent endorsement from a conservative Iowa congressman, Cruz is in a strong position. But Rubio is about to embark on a five-day tour of the state that will include stops in conservative western Iowa and include meetings with pastors.
“I can tell you for a fact that there are a lot of pastors taking a second look at Marco Rubio because of his strong positions on national security and the pro-life issue,” said Jamie Johnson, a pastor from Story City.
Christian conservative voters traditionally wield significant influence in the Iowa caucuses because they tend to be organized and motivated to participate.
The exit of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, popular with some Christian voters, means some support is up for grabs.
One key endorsement in the evangelical community will be that of Family Leader President Bob Vander Plaats. He said that when he makes a choice, he’ll seek to rally his community to make the most impact.
Cruz argues that evangelical Christians, libertarians, tea party supporters and other conservatives must lock arms behind one candidate or risk losing to a more moderate Republican.
Cruz is trying to cast Rubio as one such moderate, even though both senators rode the tea party wave of recent years to national prominence and have deeply conservative voting records. Rubio casts Cruz as weak on national security because the Texas senator favored limits on government surveillance programs earlier in the year.
Rubio has been rising in the national race and picking up the pace of his efforts in the state with fewer than 75 days before the caucuses.
“We think we can do really well with evangelical voters,” said Rubio spokesman Alex Conant. “I think Marco is uniquely positioned to be able to unite Republicans.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article