Texas Sen. Ted Cruz blew away another gathering of religious conservative leaders this week, preaching about threats to religious freedom to a receptive and hungry crowd.
"I will never, ever, ever shy away from standing up and defending the religious liberty of every American," the GOP White House hopeful thundered at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference in Washington.
"Religious liberty has never been more threatened in America than right now today," Cruz added.
Cruz hit all the right notes and could easily be declared the winner of the three-day conference, which wraps up Saturday. But despite the good receptions at events like these, Cruz's work on stage is not translating to the campaign trail. He not only lags behind in early state polls, but also in organization. And despite being the first major presidential candidate to declare this cycle, early state activists are baffled by how little they say they have seen Cruz.
"I've always thought that Ted Cruz was kind of the perfect caucus candidate," said Craig Robinson, who runs "The Iowa Republican" website and is a former political director for the state party. "But what we haven't seen is a real commitment to the state."
Speaking their language
There's a reason Ted Cruz does well in front of these crowds. He roams the stage with the gusto of a televangelist. He does not work from a podium, and he strikes just the right tone.
At the Road to Majority confab, he slammed other Republicans for backing down on Indiana's controversial religious freedom law, warned against a potential same-sex marriage decision from the Supreme Court and bashed the Obama administration for not standing up more forcefully to the threat of Islamic extremism.
He boosted his own bona fides, too, telling the audience how he had successfully argued cases before the Supreme Court on "religious liberty," such as protecting a Ten Commandments display at the Texas Capitol.
And with the cadence of a preacher, Cruz seamlessly and empathetically weaved in the tragic Charleston, S.C., shooting that had occurred the night before that left nine dead at a historically black church.
Cruz led the audience of hundreds — they could have been congregants — in a moment of silence.
"Christians across our nation, across our world — believers across the world are lifting up the congregants at Emanuel AME," Cruz said.
Other GOP rivals touched on many of the same issues, but none with perhaps the same zeal or with the same visceral reaction from the audience.
The faithful ate it up.
"I like the fact that he fights even his own party for the right issue and the right cause," said John Redell, who was attending from Wilmington, Del. "That's the kind of strength we're going to need for a president: someone who can say no — even to his friends — to do what's right for the nation."
Jessica Burnett, a student at Georgia State University: "Ted Cruz was full of energy. He spoke a lot about the issues. He really got the crowd riled up a lot, and you can tell how serious he is about this and how much he cares about America."
The importance of retail politics
It's perhaps no surprise Cruz is able to channel a preacher. His father is an ordained minister, and he went to high school in Houston on the campus of a megachurch.
The former Ivy League debate champion has always loved performance art. He has moved between stages his whole life — from high-school musicals to the high-pressure collegiate debate circuit to the floor of the U.S. Senate. The challenge, though, for Cruz is coming down from the stage.
A majority of Republican caucus-goers and primary voters in Iowa and South Carolina are white, evangelical or born-again Christians. In 2012, 57 percent of GOP voters in the Iowa caucuses described themselves that way, while 65 percent of the GOP primary electorate in South Carolina said so, according to entrance and exit polls.
The candidate who can unify them has a time-tested path to victory in those states and, with it, a springboard to the front of the presidential pack. But winning over those voters requires hand-to-hand, grip-and-grin campaigning — retail politics.
It's what former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum did in Iowa in 2008 and 2012, respectively. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who built a career on this kind of campaigning, has already hit hard key sections of the state with deep pockets of religious voters.
The building blocks, the enthusiasm, are there for Cruz, but so far, observers in early states say, he has not shown the willingness to do the kind of required on-the-ground work — to the extent it's needed to win.
Craig Robinson, the former Iowa GOP political operative, noted Cruz's thin staff in the first caucus state compared to other candidates. What's more, Cruz, who is in Iowa this weekend, has held just 23 events in the state over a total of 16 days, according to the Des Moines Register's candidate tracker. That ranks seventh among Republican candidates and isn't in the top 10 overall.
By contrast, Santorum has already held 62 events over 29 days; Rick Perry 61 over 30 days; Rand Paul 41 over 16 days; and Mike Huckabee 37 events over 20 days. Even Carly Fiorina and Bobby Jindal, who is set to declare Wednesday, have done more events.
"I still think Cruz has some work to do in terms of his retail campaigning in Iowa," Robinson said, "but I think he has it within himself to do it."
The battle for the evangelical vote
Some of those who have topped him in sojourns to the state are also competing for the same crucial evangelical voters, and were also well-received at the conference this week.
Santorum reminded the audience of his long track record fighting for conservative issues, while others were just talk.
"You know me, I'm probably best known for issues of faith and freedom. In some cases, I'm only known for that," he laughed.
Jindal also spoke at length about the threats to religious liberty the day after Cruz, and was also well received by the crowd. Talking of his own conversion to the Christianity from Hinduism, he bemoaned how he felt it was no longer acceptable to stand up for unpopular opinions central to much of the evangelical faith, such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
"I'm tired of the hypocrisy of the left," Jindal said. "They say they tolerate diversity, and they do, unless you disagree with them. ... The United States of America did not create religious liberty. Religious liberty created the United States of America," he added to applause.
Ben Carson, another favorite of the crowd, Iowa conservatives and Tea Party supporters, spoke of how his faith helped him in his career as a world-renowned neurosurgeon. He said he saw the healing power of prayer and attributed his surgical skill to God after a child he didn't expect to recover went on to do so.
"I thought I was doing everything," Carson said. "I realized after that, that it wasn't me, it was God. I just said, 'Lord, you be the neurosurgeon, and I'll be your hands.' "
Carson, who rose to political fame in 2013 after giving a blistering broadside of Obamacare as the president sat feet away, had another critique for the president's administration.
"I know that President Obama says we're not a Judeo-Christian nation," Carson said, "but he doesn't get to decide. We decide."
While Cruz may have blown away many in the crowd the first day, others were left impressed by many others, underlining the difficult choice Iowa and South Carolina evangelical voters will have next year.
"I'm hoping, because we have such a large field, that as the field narrows down, the candidates are seeing what the American people really are looking for," said Terri Wical of Atlanta. "You know, getting back to our roots, getting back to character and all that. They don't want someone moderate. They don't want something that's going to accommodate everybody ... They want somebody that's going to stand on a firm foundation."
Lauren Leatherby contributed to this report.