U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz bowed his head and held hands with former S.C. GOP chairman Chad Connelly Monday as 500 evangelical pastors and their spouses prayed out loud for the Texas Republican in the banquet room of a Columbia hotel.
Cruz, a potential 2016 White House hopeful and lightning rod in last month’s 16-day partial federal government shutdown, has just finished telling pastors how Christians helped lead economic recovery under President Ronald Reagan after the doldrums of the late 1970s.
“This is a room of leaders,” Cruz told the pastors. “This room represents collectively tens and hundreds of thousands that you all can reach out to. ... You are here for a time such as this. The window to turn this country around is a small window, but we’ve done it before. We can do it again.”
Cruz was speaking to the same group – organized by the American Family Association-funded American Renewal Project – that former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited twice before his surprise victory in South Carolina’s 2012 GOP presidential primary.
Before he spoke, Cruz dismissed talk about a presidential run, saying his focus was on the Senate and sharing a message about restoring free-market principles. “My energy is focused on mobilizing the grassroots,” he said.
Meetings of the American Renewal Project, held in battleground states, aim to get pastors to boost voter registration among evangelicals. S.C. pastors were asked to hold registration drives at their churches during Sundays in January.
Cruz and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-Charleston, were asked to share testimonies about their faith to the pastors.
Scott quoted biblical passages, spoke about the moment when he embraced Jesus Christ in college and told a story about his recovery from a car wreck in high school. He also mentioned the power of those with strong religious beliefs.
“We can have a wave of change that takes over, consumes this country and gets us back on the right track,” Scott said. “I don’t think it take a majority to get there. I think it takes a remnant – a remnant of people who are called and respond.”
Cruz’s speech was more political than personal. He started with examples of attacks on religious symbols and clergy, which drew “amens” and applause from the crowd of pastors. He spoke about social issues, especially fighting abortion, and took aim at the federal health-care law.
“Obamacare is the No. 1, biggest job killer in the country,” he said.
Cruz promised to speak for less than 21 hours – the length of his speech before a partial government shutdown last month. Then, he quipped, “That’s longer than it takes to sign up on the Obamacare website.”
When a pastor mentioned the outcry over a recently discovered comment that Cruz’s father made last year about sending Obama “back to Kenya,” the first-term senator said the comment was a joke.
Cruz did not say anything else about the remark except that his father endured worse hardships while growing up in Cuba than the criticism he is receiving for the Kenya comment.