GREENVILLE, South Carolina—The last Republican presidential candidate to visit Bob Jones University was George W. Bush. It was a fiasco. When Bush visited in 2000, the Greenville, South Carolina, school was known for two things: its strict rules on music, film, shopping, and dress, and its ban on interracial dating. And although Bush was there to tout and affirm his ties to conservative evangelicals, the focus—in the press and elsewhere—was on race.
“I didn’t want it hanging around our neck up here in New York that the presidential candidate of my party consorts with and condones the bigoted policy of Bob Jones University,” said Rep. Peter King to the Washington Post, in that brief moment where some Republicans didn’t want Bush to be president. “It’s going to be a problem and we’re not going to be able shake ourselves loose of it unless we shake ourselves loose of George Bush.”
Bush survived the controversy, and Bob Jones changed course—that year, it lifted its ban on interracial relationships. But the damage was done. Bush focused on evangelical voters in his 2004 re-election race but didn’t touch the university. Mike Huckabee bypassed the school in his 2008 effort to rouse evangelicals and win the GOP nomination, and Mitt Romney ignored it in his 2012 campaign for the GOP nomination.
Which makes this past weekend a noteworthy moment in the history of presidential elections. For the first time since Bush, a Republican visited Bob Jones University for a campaign event. In fact, two Republicans visited. On Friday, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson joined South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott for a town hall. And greeted by a packed auditorium of fans and onlookers, Carson held forth on policy and faith. “I believe in a loving God who is compassionate. And I believe in godly principals of loving your fellow man … having values and principals that govern your life. That will obviously impact the way that I feel about things,” he said.
I wasn’t there for Carson’s event. But I did attend the other Republican candidate’s visit—Sen. Ted Cruz. There, the Texas senator, who is on the upswing in the Republican presidential race, held a rally under the banner of religious liberty. And every aspect of the production was designed to emphasize Cruz’s presentation as a warrior for conservative evangelical Christians.
The program described the senator as “the consistent conservative defending religious liberty,” and the rally itself was explicitly religious in form and content, resembling nothing as much as an exurban megachurch service. The preshow, for example, was a series of choir performances: one from a nearby school (North Greenville University), one from Crown College in Tennessee, and one from Bob Jones itself.
Once the modest crowd was seated in the auditorium—according to the campaign, 2,500 people attended the event, compared with double as many for Carson’s the day earlier—Cruz asked for a moment of silence for the victims of the terrorist attack in Paris, and—in an opening prayer—called for a response to the ISIS militants who claimed responsibility. “This is an evil that will not quietly slip away,” Cruz said. “We will defeat radical Islamic terrorism. This evil wll no longer walk the face of the Earth.”
From there, we had the show. Former Major League Baseball players and erstwhile HGTV stars David and Jason Benham were the MCs. Their story, of losing a home improvement show after a liberal group aired their views on same-sex marriage, was a cautionary tale of a secular society gone mad against conservative Christians. In turn, they introduced a series of speakers, either live or in highly produced videos: former Virginia lieutenant governor nominee E.W. Jackson, who won huge applause with his opening line, “I am not an African-American; I am an American”; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; and Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Institute. Cruz also hosted several “heroes” of religious liberty, including one couple who were sued for declining to host a same-sex wedding ceremony in a historic chapel they owned.
As for the senator himself? He hit familiar notes. “The federal government wages a daily assault on life, on marriage, on religious liberty. It’s because Christians are not standing up for our values,” said Cruz. He accused Obama of “particular antipathy” for Christians and described a United States where Christianity was practically on the run. “What kind of country have we become when kneeling in prayer is regarded as an act of civil disobedience?” he asked. “These threats are real, and they are growing each and every day.”
To liberal ears, this might sound hyperbolic. But it resonated with the audience, who see real prejudice against Christians in present-day American life. “I’m here to support other Christians and Ted Cruz as well,” said one attendee, who called himself a “Christian conservative.” Another audience member, Julius, came to Bob Jones from Atlanta. “I’ve been a Ted Cruz fan for a long time, he’s my choice for president,” he said. “He shares my values from a faith aspect.”
Others pointed to the senator’s stances on public morality. “I like his stance on abortion, keeping ‘Under God’ in the pledge, defunding Planned Parenthood, and defending our traditional values,” said Seth, who came to the event from Columbia, South Carolina.
This is all to say that Cruz wasn’t there to persuade anyone. This was an audience of supporters—people who, if they vote in the South Carolina primary, will vote for the Texas senator. Instead, Cruz had come to affirm, as loudly as possible, his position as the evangelical candidate who can win. He understands their issues, speaks to their problems, and aggressively courts their leaders; part of the Cruz campaign strategy is to recruit pastors in every county of Iowa and South Carolina and to rely on grassroots evangelical support to win the “SEC primary” on Super Tuesday next year.
Which raises a question: Is this strategy working? Cruz is trailing in the polls behind Donald Trump and Ben Carson—the absolute leaders in the Republican race for president—but he’s nearly even with Sen. Marco Rubio. And in South Carolina and Iowa, he’s moving closer and closer to the top. It’s still impossible to say what will happen in the GOP primary, but we can say—with certainty—that Cruz is someone to watch.