Bud Kennedy

Cruz can out-preach Trump, but that may not matter

Sen. Ted Cruz and New York Republican Donald Trump share a word during a rally against the Iran nuclear deal Wednesday in Washington.
Sen. Ted Cruz and New York Republican Donald Trump share a word during a rally against the Iran nuclear deal Wednesday in Washington. AP

In a Republican primary campaign that has gone from reality show to wacky sitcom, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz now stands alone.

He’s the only top contender who hasn’t been mocked as ugly, boring or weak by Donald Trump. So either Trump respects Cruz, or doesn’t worry about him at all.

By now, Texas’ junior senator was supposed to be well on his way to the nomination, charging to the front as faith-and-values voters’ hero and building momentum for Iowa and a Super Tuesday sweep of the South.

Instead, anti-establishment voters are also anti-evangelical establishment.

So Trump and Florida surgeon Ben Carson remain 1-2 among conservative Christians, with Trump bulling into Cruz country Monday in Dallas.

“There are no more Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons or Ralph Reeds, widely recognizable evangelical leaders who were true power brokers,” Southern Methodist University political science professor Matthew Wilson, an authority on social conservatives, wrote by email.

“The ‘evangelical vote’ is as marginal as it has been in a long time, because they are all over the place … largely being driven by stylistic considerations.”

Cruz enlisted more Texas leaders’ help this week, when Aledo author and influential Republican David Barton took charge of the wealthy Keep the Promise super PAC and Frisco-based author Brian Fisher joined fellow leaders of Online for Life to bolster Cruz’s social-media game.

In Iowa, Christian radio host Steve Deace is all in for Cruz. But the national Christian multimedia giant Salem Media Group, co-sponsor of the California debate Wednesday, also has a subsidiary promoting a newly reissued Trump book, retitled Time to Get Tough: Make America Great Again!

This isn’t the first elbowing match for conservative Christians’ support.

Almost four years ago, in January 2012, prominent leaders met at Southern Baptist leader Judge Paul Pressler’s Central Texas ranch to choose among contenders Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum against Mitt Romney. The way the story goes, they favored Santorum and his evangelical activist wife, Karen, as the best church speakers and national role models as a potential First Family.

That didn’t turn out well. But if preaching style and family portraits are still a deciding factor, Donald and Melania Trump don’t fill the role as well as Ben and Candy Carson, or Heidi and Ted Cruz.

Then there’s the resilient candidacy of former Fort Worth seminary student and North Richland Hills resident Mike Huckabee, who got the edge on Cruz last week at the side of Rowan County, Ky., clerk Kim Davis.

Huckabee has a faithful base of voter support because “he has higher name recognition and comes across as more positive or sincere than Cruz,” University of North Texas political science professor Valerie Martinez-Ebers emailed.

One of the deans of Texas political science professors, Richard Murray at the University of Houston, wrote bluntly that Cruz is “less likable than Huckabee and Carson, coming across as too lawyerly and severe.”

But Murray, director of the Survey Research Institute at the UH Hobby Center for Public Policy, added what others fear saying: to some Republicans nationally, Cruz is “an immigrant with a Hispanic father.”

Murray predicted Carson’s campaign will last deep into 2016, but added that Cruz has the best chance to be the last “anti-establishment, evangelical-backed” candidate.

Not if Trump can waltz across Texas.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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