With just days until the Iowa caucus, candidates are praying for victory – and they want you to know it.
Senator Ted Cruz ends his Iowa events by asking audience members to “lift the country up in prayer.” Senator Marco Rubio told a crowd in Marshalltown Tuesday that the “prayers of the righteous are incredibly powerful” and asked them to petition God on behalf of his family. Dr. Ben Carson told reporters he was “praying for God’s will to be done” ahead of voting at a worship rally the same day.
Evangelical voters are a major force in Republican politics in Iowa compared to other early states like New Hampshire, and the well-organized faith vote heavily influences the tone and message of candidates. 57 percent of Iowa GOP caucus-goers in 2012 self-identified as evangelical, and former Senator Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, won the caucus courting their support intensely.
In the last round of ads, speeches, and interviews, candidates are zeroing in on Christian voters by emphasizing their piety and commitment to social issues like abortion. “I believe in God,” Rubio says in a new TV ad emphasizing his faith. “Faith is the greatest influence on my life,” he told supporters at a rally on Wednesday night.
Cruz held an anti-abortion rally in on Wednesday, at which he also emphasized his opposition to gay marriage and debuted a “Pro Lifers For Cruz” group with 17,334 members. He’s collected a number of endorsements from prominent social conservatives in the state.
Even Donald Trump, who is known for mangling Bible quotes and said last year he doesn’t believe in praying for forgiveness, declared that “Christianity is under tremendous siege” at a Sioux City event, and pledged to somehow stop people from saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Polls show him performing strongly with religious Republicans nationally.
Some campaigns are also going negative, with candidates and allied groups even questioning whether certain rivals are committed Christians.
Donald Trump has come under attack the most. Cruz has repeatedly attacked Trump on abortion – Trump was previously “pro-choice in every respect” before changing his mind – and super PACs supporting his candidacy are running ads on the issue.
Jeb Bush went even further this week, accusing Trump of faking piety and implying he cut a secret deal to score an endorsement from Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. (Trump has denied the accusation). Asked by reporters this week whether he considered Trump a Christian, Bush indicated he did not.
“No, I don’t know what he is,” he said. “I don’t think he has the kind of relationship he says he has if he can’t explain it any way that shows he is serious about it.”
It’s not just Trump facing these kinds of attacks. A super PAC supporting former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who won the evangelical vote and the Iowa caucus in 2008, is running ads hitting Cruz for not donating enough to charity and churches and accusing him of being softer on gay marriage in fundraisers.
“He doesn’t tithe?” one woman in the ad says. “A millionaire that brags about his faith all the time?”
The onslaught of Christian-themed appeals can be dizzying for religious-minded voters trying to pick a favorite among a giant field.
“I would say that part of the challenge is to hear what they’re saying, how they’re saying it,” Jeff Hill, Senior Associate Pastor at New Hope Assembly, told NBC News in an interview. “But then the challenge is to say, ‘How deep seeded is what they’re saying?’ Because we have this idea that politicians are just that. They’ll say what they need to say to be elected.”
New Hope Senior Pastor James Weaver stressed that his congregation had many opinions on the election and he wasn’t endorsing anyone, but said he was personally leaning toward Huckabee and actively concerned about Trump, who he did not view as a “compassionate Bible-believing conservative.”
Weaver also said he was watching for differences between candidate’s styles and not just policies. He found Rubio and Cruz were “really good men” who were open about their religious devotion, but he saw “a little more tenderness and kindness in [Rubio’s] voice” while Cruz “might come across a little harsh.”
Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, told MSNBC that while candidate’s positions and individual endorsements were important, evangelical voters were hardly a monolith and were exacting in their ultimate decision process.
“There may be general agreement on maybe 95 percent of the issues across the board,” he said, “but in the end, people take their time trying to figure out the pluses and minuses.”
As the GOP race grows more heated in general, Republicans aren’t the only ones finding religion.
“We may be given a gift from the Lord in the presidential race here,” Vice President Joe Biden told a Democratic conference in Baltimore on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Hallie Jackson.