After seeing Ted Cruz speak in Columbia this month, David Edwards turned to his son and recalled seeing another Republican who ran for the White House.
“We had the same feeling for (Ronald) Reagan, and people can’t stop talking about him,” the Columbia piano teacher said of the late president. “I feel like God is moving this man (Cruz) up to take that mantle to make this country great under God again. He has that presence of leadership.”
Cruz, appealing to evangelical voters and backed by socially conservative lawmakers, appears to be the Republican Party’s best hope of avoiding a sweep of the early presidential contests by GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
The senator, who critics call an angry ideologue, is running second in Iowa and South Carolina and competing for third in New Hampshire.
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“He’s probably the most outsider insider who’s ever been,” said Heath Roberts, an Irmo real estate professional who thinks Cruz has the best chance of any GOP candidate to overturn the Affordable Care Act, fix the federal debt and boost the economy
Cruz’s backers hope his reputation as a Senate maverick — elected in 2012 with the endorsement of then-U.S Sen. Jim DeMint, R-Greenville — will appeal to S.C. voters who don’t want Trump, a New York billionaire, or an establishment GOP candidate.
Cruz is best known for leading a 16-day shutdown of the federal government in 2013 in a failed attempt to defund Democratic President Barack Obama’s heath insurance law.
His hardline stances — in favor of sending back undocumented immigrants and abolishing the Internal Revenue Service — are attractive to many GOP voters. The son of a preacher, Cruz also wants to ban all abortions, including in cases of rape and incest, a position that appeals to many social conservatives and evangelicals.
‘He’s been fighting’
The key to Cruz winning South Carolina’s Feb. 20 primary could be mimicking the last candidate to appeal heavily to those evangelical voters, who will cast six of every 10 GOP votes in the the Palmetto State.
In 2008, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, won two dozen of South Carolina’s 46 counties — sweeping across the Upstate and into the Pee Dee — to almost beat U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the state’s Republican presidential primary.
“Cruz’s best hope is appealing to evangelicals who have lost faith in Trump,” Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson said.
In South Carolina, Cruz, 45, trails Trump but leads U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top establishment candidate in the field, and retired Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who like Cruz and Trump has attracted GOP voters angry at Republicans for compromising on Capitol Hill.
“They’re all about the things we can’t do,” Brad Wasson, a salesman from Lexington, said of congressional Republicans during a Cruz stop in Columbia. “ ‘We can’t deport 10 million (undocumented immigrants) from the country.’ ... ‘The only way to do it is by doing whatever the Democratic Party wants to do.’ ”
But not Cruz, said Wasson. “Part of Ted Cruz’s appeal is that he’s been fighting against the Democratic Party, where as all these other guys want to get along.”
Still, Trump — the other angry outsider — could win over many of Cruz’s S.C. supporters if the Texan falls outside the top two in Iowa on Feb. 1 and finishes poorly in New Hampshire on Feb. 9
“If what he’s saying right now is truly the real Trump, then I’d be OK with him,” Irmo’s Roberts of the GOP frontrunner. “But I don’t completely trust that’s really where he is.”
Not Democrat Light
Former S.C. Attorney General Charlie Condon co-chaired the S.C. presidential campaign for John McCain in 2008, but he went with Cruz in 2016 after seeing GOP nominees McCain and Mitt Romney fail to beat Obama in 2008 and 2012.
“He’s not here to be Democrat Light,” Condon said of Cruz after the GOP presidential debate in North Charleston earlier this month. “We’ve had this process of nominating moderates. Mitt Romney didn’t win. It wasn’t close. John McCain didn’t win. It wasn’t close. This moderate stuff has not worked for us. We need our voters to be energized.”
This year, Condon bypassed supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, even though he co-chaired the 2000 S.C. presidential campaign of his brother, George W. Bush.
“I think the world of the Bush family,” Condon said. “I just feel like, when you start looking at the candidates, Ted’s the one. He can communicate. It’s his time. He should be our standard-bearer. He will beat (Democratic front-runner) Hillary Clinton.”
Cruz campaign spokesman Rick Tyler said typical Republican voters are more conservative than most party leaders and pundits think. Nominating a more conservative candidate — Cruz — will help win the White House, he added.
“Why is it that the left can get their base out there and win, and we’re supposed to go to the middle where nobody is?” Tyler asked.
Cruz is hoping the support of conservative evangelicals will carry his campaign far beyond South Carolina.
Twenty-six states will hold primaries or caucuses before March 15. In almost half of those states, half or more of the GOP voters will be evangelicals, including South Carolina.
“Ted Cruz relates to those voters,” Tyler said. “His Texas values are the same in the South. And that gives us momentum.”
Outside the South, however, values is a word that could cost Cruz support.
During this month’s North Charleston debate, Cruz criticized Trump’s “New York values.” Trump pushed back, invoking the city’s response to 9/11 attacks, and hasn’t given up since.
Last week, Trump tweeted a photo of the smoking remains of the World Trade Center towers, saying, “Is this the New York that Ted Cruz is talking about & demeaning?”
Tyler said Trump and others critical of Cruz’s remark miss the point.
“All the news shows come out of New York so it’s not missed that they don’t talk about farming. They don’t talk about hunting. They don’t talk about a lot of the things that Americans do and care about,” Tyler said.
“They talk about, frankly, what New York talks about. It’s not right or wrong. It’s just the way it is,” he said. “It’s not a mystery to some people that New York has gun control. Most of the states have Second Amendment rights. There are attitudes on abortion and marriage that are different than New York. I don’t think anyone would dispute that.”
Cruz is working to win S.C. votes outside of the Upstate, the state’s social conservative core.
Last week, for instance, his campaign reached out to the Midlands, airing an ad about the threat of lost jobs at the Fort Jackson Army training base.
Already heating up, the Trump-Cruz fight could get nastier in South Carolina.
As the two candidates trade barbs, it’s getting harder to remember the pair shared a long “bromance.”
“I like Donald Trump, and I am glad Donald Trump is in this election,” Cruz said during a stop in Anderson in August. “No. 1, Donald Trump is shining a light on the problem of illegal immigration. And because Donald Trump is talking about it, all of our friends in the mainstream media are actually covering illegal immigration — an issue I have been leading the fight on.”
However, when Cruz passed Trump in the Iowa polls, the informal alliance between the angry outsiders ended.
The billionaire went on the offensive, raising questions about whether Cruz’s birth in Canada — to an American mother — makes him ineligible to be president. (Cruz is eligible, experts say.)
Echoing a Rubio criticism of Cruz, Trump also aired ads saying Cruz once supported amnesty for undocumented workers, a claim the Texan has denied. Trump also said Cruz is “a nasty guy,” who no one likes. Cruz responded by questioning whether Trump has the proper temperament to be president.
The shift in Cruz-Trump relationship is a signal the campaign is heading into the final stage before votes are cast, spokesman Tyler said.
“We’re at the part of the campaign where people want to know how they’re different and, on several issues, we’re dramatically different (with Trump),” he said. “On tone and guiding principles, we are starkly different.”
Tone has become a buzzword among Republican party leaders, who — despite earlier reservations — slowly are coming to accept the idea that either Trump or Cruz could be their party’s nominee.
After S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley urged voters to avoid the campaign’s angriest voices in her nationally televised State of the Union response this month, Trump accepted the “angry” label during the GOP presidential debate in North Charleston.
Tyler says the candidates are not angry. But, he adds, voters are.
“They are not happy about their government and the way it runs. They think it’s impugning their freedom, stealing their future children’s potential, running up debt,” he said. “It’s a closed, corrupt system. Sen. Cruz speaks to those people want it to change. He’s only guy who’s proven to go to Washington, not assimilate, and taken all the hits.”
Last last week, Trump took back the lead in Iowa in a blow to Cruz, who is not expected to win in New Hampshire, which does not have a large base of socially conservative voters.
But in South Carolina, Cruz is finding a niche.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a former S.C. governor, says Cruz is winning the fight with Rubio for anti-Trump voters in the Palmetto State.
“There’s been a look to consolidate around somebody who is an appropriately angry alternative to Trump,” said Sanford, a Charleston Republican whose first stint in Congress came in the 1994 Republican Revolution. “I think Cruz has emerged in the direction.
“As to whether that holds, we’ll see.”
The impact of social conservatives in S.C. GOP primaries
John McCain: 33.2%
Mike Huckabee: 29.8%
McCain, the senator from Arizona, went on to win the Republican nomination. However, Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, nearly won the S.C. primary by dominating the vote in the socially conservative Upstate and among Pee Dee Republicans.
What do the 2008 results mean for this year? Huckabee is running again, but his campaign is trailing badly — at 1 percent in S.C., according to an average of polls.
Targets for Cruz? In 2008, Huckabee placed first in two-dozen S.C. counties — Abbeville, Anderson, Cherokee, Chester, Chesterfield, Clarendon, Darlington, Dillon, Edgefield, Florence, Greenville, Greenwood, Hampton, Jasper, Lancaster, Laurens, Lee, Marion, Marlboro, Pickens, Spartanburg, Sumter, Union and York.
Newt Gingrich: 40.4%
Mitt Romney: 27.9%
Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, surprised Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who had the backing of S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley. Romney won just three of 46 S.C. counties — Richland, Charleston and Beaufort. While he went on to win the GOP nomination, Romney finished third in a half-dozen counties in the Upstate and near Charlotte, trailing Gingrich and former U.S. Sen. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a social conservative.
What do the 2012 results mean for this year: Santorum is running again, but barely registering in the polls — at less than 1 percent in S.C., according to an average of polls.
Targets for Cruz? Santorum finished third in the 2012 S.C. primary, taking 17 percent of the vote. But he placed second in a half-dozen counties — Cherokee, Chester, Lancaster, Union and York. Huckabee, who also appeals to evangelical and socially conservative voters, took all of those counties in 2008.
2016 S.C. GOP presidential polls
The average of polls for the Feb. 20 S.C. Republican presidential primary, compiled by Real Clear Politics, as of Saturday:
Donald Trump: 35%
Ted Cruz: 20.5%
Marco Rubio: 11.5%
Jeb Bush: 10%
Ben Carson: 9%
Rand Paul: 3%
Chris Christie: 2.5%
John Kasich: 2.5%
Carly Fiorina: 2%
Mike Huckabee: 1.5%
Rick Santorum: 0.5%