RALEIGH, N.C. — As a former pastor, Fred Wolfe has seen plenty of evangelical Christians make a distinction between religion and politics. They look for "toughness, not morals" in their candidates, he said, and so are probably voting for GOP front-runner Donald Trump this year. Wolfe himself, though, is canvassing for Sen. Ted Cruz in North Carolina.
"He's the first Republican candidate I've been able to support with a clean conscience," said Wolfe, 37, one of many conservative Christians who turned out to the hear the Texas Republican speak at Calvary Baptist Church here.
"You see your Christianity by the fruit you display," said Debby Taylor, who believes the tide is turning slightly in Cruz's favor. Her No. 1 issue, she said, is abortion. As for Trump, she said she's not convinced that "he has a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ." And she was troubled by Trump's crude comments in last week's GOP debate: "It's very sad that you cannot let your children see the process of watching a presidential election."
Indeed, Cruz has support in North Carolina, said Ray Britt, 48, because of his "core beliefs." Kim Springs, 57, who grabbed a sought-after seat in the middle of the room Tuesday, had one word to express her support for Cruz: "Morals."
With primaries going on elsewhere in the country, Cruz was here ahead of next week's primary. After winning two caucuses over the weekend, Cruz considers this is an important southern state, even if most of the attention is going to other March 15 primaries in Sen. Marco Rubio’s Florida home base and Ohio Gov. John Kasich's state.
“North Carolina is tremendously important. North Carolina is a bellwether state,” Cruz told the press before going on stage. “We have an incredible team here in North Carolina and I’ll tell you it’s neck and neck. North Carolina is going to have a decisive impact on this primary.”
The first of 2,500 people began lining up outside just after 9 a.m. Tuesday to see Cruz. And they came out with little notice. The Cruz campaign hadn’t announced Tuesday’s event until late afternoon Monday, but when registration closed at 10 p.m., 1,600 people had signed up. Just before noon, when the Cruz event was supposed to begin, the line to see the GOP presidential hopeful looped through the parking lot and stretched far down the road.
The South was supposed to be Cruz’s firewall, but he had a disappointing finish with the so-called “SEC” states that voted on Super Tuesday, losing evangelical voters to Donald Trump in nearby South Carolina. And North Carolina, where Barack Obama narrowly beat Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 and narrowly lost to GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney in 2012, is a true battleground state, unlike its solidly red neighbor to the south -- particularly in presidential election years. The outcome and voter profile is, therefore, more uncertain.
Cruz seems to like his chances in North Carolina, especially since first-place finishes in Kansas and Maine over the weekend breathed fresh life into his campaign. Cruz’s wife, Heidi, was already beginning the North Carolina push over the weekend , and Cruz thinks the grassroots conservative vote can push him over the edge, and, at the very least, help amass a strong enough finish to force Rubio out of the race.
“Ours is the only campaign that has beaten Donald Trump repeatedly and that can and will beat Donald Trump,” Cruz said once again, making a direct appeal to the two thirds of Republicans who, he said, don’t want to see Trump as president.
Contact Pathe at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @sfpathe. Related: Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.