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Republicans chase after Iowa’s evangelical voters

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US Senator Ted Cruz stopped Sunday at the Johnson County Fairgrounds.
US Senator Ted Cruz stopped Sunday at the Johnson County Fairgrounds.(Joshua Lott)

IOWA CITY — Love rained down on Iowa's conservative Christians Sunday from the top of the Republican presidential primary field, as real estate mogul Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz wooed evangelical voters, who could make the difference in a tight race.

The Republican candidates blitzed Iowa, fanning out around the state, driving buses past farms and corn silos, and flying on charter jets around Iowa's patchwork quilt landscape. It was family day out on the hustings, with beaming wives and, in Trump's case, a pregnant daughter.

"Wouldn't it be great if she had the baby in Iowa?" Trump told the crowd.

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Trump remained the narrow front-runner, but Monday night's caucus will test whether he can transform his ability to draw big crowds — a combination of committed followers and curious tire-kickers — into actual votes.

On Sunday morning Trump, who has tried to tout his Christian faith and recently posted a video of him with his mother's Bible, went to services at First Christian Orchard Campus, a nondenominational church in Council Bluffs. At a high school nearby, people began lining up outside four hours before the event.

A man in a cowboy hat played a song, "Donald J. Trump for President." A colorful mural of Trump was displayed on a bus. And Jerry Falwell Jr., the evangelical leader and head of Liberty University, lavished praise on Trump — who, in his unique way, asked for Iowans' support.

"You have a lousy record — 16 years and you haven't picked a winner. Please pick a winner this time, OK?" Trump told a crowd here. "You've got to just get it done."

He again hammered Cruz for his Canadian birth to an American mother, saying that it raised questions over his eligibility to run for the presidency because it could violate a constitutional requirement that presidents be "natural born" citizens. He called Cruz a "nasty guy" whom no one likes.

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Cruz said he would not take the bait.

"I think the people of Iowa deserve more. I think the American people deserve more than just a battle of petty insults," Cruz said on CNN's "State of the Union." "And so I don't intend to play that game."

Donald Trump paused for a selfie during a rally in Council Bluffs on Sunday.
Donald Trump paused for a selfie during a rally in Council Bluffs on Sunday.(Jae C. Hong)

The last poll before the Iowa caucuses, released on Saturday night by the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics, showed Trump with a narrow lead over Cruz, 28 percent to 23 percent. Senator Marco Rubio was in third at 15 percent, followed by Ben Carson with 10 percent. No one else cracked into double digits.

Monday will be a test of organizations. Trump — who has never appeared on a presidential ballot despite several flirtations with campaigns in the past — is relying on many first-time caucus attendees who have been filling gymnasiums.

Cruz has spent far longer organizing the type of network that normally produces dividends on caucus night.

In eastern Iowa, hundreds flooded into a massive tin shed on the Johnson County fairgrounds in Iowa City to hear Cruz — after he, too, attended a church service — make his closing arguments.

Cruz's wife, Heidi, attested to his character and devotion to family. His father, Rafael, a pastor who has been stumping for him all over Iowa churches for the last year, highlighted his devotion to God. Then there was conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck screaming that "Islamists need to be killed," prompting someone in the audience to shout, "Islam's a cult."

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Parents hoisted their children onto their shoulders, instructing them to snap photos when Cruz took the stage.

"Jesus loves you, Ted," someone yelled out.

"And God is good," Cruz said.

"All of the time!" the audience chimed in.

The florescent lights flickered off — Cruz's cue to growl that the "Obama NSA" heard there was "a group of Iowans seeking to overthrow the government."

He exhorted the crowd to caucus for him Monday night.

"This is your time, for the men and women of Iowa to say we can't get fooled again," he said. "Awaken the body of Christ that we might pull back from the abyss."

Marco Rubio’s stops on Sunday included a rally at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
Marco Rubio’s stops on Sunday included a rally at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.(REUTERS)

Many who came out to hear Cruz on a chilly, wet Sunday had settled on him months ago, attracted by what they say is the Texas senator's commitment to religious liberty and the Constitution.

"Taking it from both sides is pretty hard to do. He promised not to compromise his values when he went to Washington and he hasn't," said Andrew Lary, a 43-year-old power equipment manager from North Liberty, as his two young children sat on the concrete floor drawing pictures while awaiting Cruz's appearance.

Rubio is trying to make a strong finish and put himself on course to become the consensus pick of more moderate Republicans.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were campaigning hard, but expected to finish low.

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Governor John Kasich of Ohio spent Sunday in New Hampshire.

The candidates on Monday will do the things they've been preparing for months to do: try to get their supporters into small caucus rooms across the state to cast votes for them. They have gathered endorsements, taken names at events so they could follow up, and it will all come down to Monday night.

But there is one thing they have not quite prepared for: snow. A storm is expected to brew, starting in the western part of the state and moving east throughout the early evening.


Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mviser. Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.