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Social issues to return to the forefront on GOP trail

Ted Cruz will likely do all he can to spin the GOP conversation back to the primary by focusing on social issues.Michael Conroy/AP

After Donald Trump’s big victories in Tuesday’s primaries, he will probably seek to pivot his campaign to general election mode. But watch for Senator Ted Cruz to do all he can to spin it back to the primary in the remaining states — by focusing on social issues.

Over the past month, as the primary wove through Wisconsin, New York, and the socially moderate states that voted on Tuesday, the GOP candidates focused on issues like trade, jobs, and the economy. But the next contests on the calendar are in Indiana, West Virginia, and Nebraska, where evangelical voters make up more of the Republican electorate. That trend might even continue in California, which awards most of its large number of delegates by congressional district, some of which are very conservative.


It’s the first time social issues — such as abortion, gay marriage, and transgender rights — could take center stage in the primary since early March, when a swath of Southern states voted in the primary. That’s mostly good news for Cruz, who has already touted his social conservative credentials on the stump in Indiana, which holds its primary on Tuesday.

What’s more, Trump has given Cruz more ammunition recently. In an interview on the “Today” show, Trump said he would call to change the Republican Party’s platform to allow for abortion in the case of rape, incest, or the health of the mother. Cruz doesn’t back such changes.

And when it came to the new North Carolina law requiring people to use restrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate, Trump said people should “use the bathroom they feel is appropriate.”

“North Carolina did something — it was very strong — and they’re paying a big price,” Trump told the network. “And there’s a lot of problems. And I heard . . . one of the best answers I heard was from a commentator yesterday saying, leave it the way it is, right now.”


Cruz is already trying to use Trump’s words against him in the Hoosier State.

“If Donald Trump dresses up as Hillary Clinton, he still can’t use the little girls’ restroom,” Cruz said at a rally in Franklin, Ind., on Monday night. “It doesn’t make any sense at all to let grown adult men — strangers — to be alone in bathrooms with little girls. And anyone saying differently is political correctness on steroids.”

As social issues return to the forefront of the primary in Indiana, the state is also becoming the place for anti-Trump forces to wage their last-ditch effort to derail him. Polling suggests that a strong social conservative message might be the way to do it, at least in Indiana

A Fox News Poll released last week showed Trump with an eight-point lead over Cruz in Indiana. Among white evangelical voters, Cruz leads Trump by two percentage points.

A different poll, one from WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana, showed Trump with a six- point lead over Cruz. That poll did not break down evangelical voters’ views, but it did find Cruz had a slim lead over Trump among “very conservative” voters.

“You look at that poll and then you look at where Cruz is going in the state and what he is saying, and it is clear that he is trying to make headway with evangelicals, hoping they will get him back on top,” said Brian Howey, the publisher of the Howey Politics Indiana newsletter.


It’s worth noting that even though Indiana favors Republicans statewide, the state’s GOP leaders have recently struggled with their message of social conservatism in the state. In 2014, Republican leaders bungled language for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. A year later, as something of a consolation prize, the same leaders passed a religious freedom law that created such a national uproar that it to be watered down with subsequent legislation.

But these are the kind of issues that Cruz will use to attract Republican voters in Indiana and beyond in the coming weeks. Every vote counts for him, John Kasich, and their efforts to stop Trump from getting the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination.

In West Virginia, which has its primary on May 10, Republicans made historic gains in the Legislature in 2014. This happened largely because of the unpopularity of President Obama there, as well as the state’s conservative leanings on religion, guns, and coal.

“We are common-sense conservative Republicans here,” said Bob Adams, a Cruz delegate candidate in West Virginia. “We are a prolife state, and when I tell people to take a second look at Donald Trump, it is issues like these that help me convince them that he is not one of us, but Cruz is.”

That said, in primaries and caucuses around the country — namely in Iowa, South Carolina, and Alabama — there have been many evangelical voters who have found Trump appealing.


That could also be the case in the June California primary, where many expect Trump to win enough delegates to get the nomination — if it happens at all before the convention. University of California at Los Angeles political science professor Chris Tausanovitch said Cruz could use social issues as one of his “favorite jabs” to hit Trump in some parts of the state. Fifteen of California’s 53 congressional districts are held by Republicans, and some of them are among the most conservative in the Congress.

But that might not be enough for Cruz.

“Cruz has always talked more about so-called social issues than Trump, because this is after all a Republican primary and Cruz is a social conservative,” Tausanovitch said. “There is not much evidence that Trump voters care about his history of being more liberal on these issues, and California is not likely to be different.”

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell. Click here to subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign.