A forum at a mega-church gives GOP hopefuls a chance to court a key part of the GOP’s base.
From: politico.com, by Shane Goldmacher, on Oct 18, 2015, see the article HERE.
PLANO, Texas — The 2016 Republican primary detoured for a day beyond familiar Iowa and New Hampshire to a 7,000-capacity megachurch in the heart of Texas, where a half dozen candidates gathered to prove their Christian bona fides and to campaign for the hearts and votes of evangelicals.
Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee all came Sunday to Prestonwood Baptist Church, which counts 40,000 members and sits on a sprawling campus on the outskirts of Dallas, with an elementary, middle and high school on site, and parking lots more befitting a sports arena than a church.
Cruz, the hometown senator, was a crowd favorite at Prestonwood, earning repeated standing ovations for his unbending stances and unequivocal declaration that “Religious liberty is under threat as never before in this country.” They cheered when he vowed he would “not surrender” on gay marriage and listened intently as he recounted his legal fights over religion as Texas solicitor general.
“My goodness, you know how to fire people up,” remarked Jack Graham, Prestonwood’s influential pastor, after Cruz was finished. “You could be a preacher.”
“It’s even worse, I’m a PK,” Cruz replied.
“A preacher’s kid,” Graham said knowingly, adding, “The Lord seems to be elevating you and giving you favor with people and you’re certainly, here in Texas, you’re back home and we’re really glad that you are.”
The event highlighted both the clout of the evangelical vote in the Republican Party and the newfound importance of Texas in 2016, which has moved up in the primary calendar to March 1, the biggest prize of the so-called SEC primary that day. Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee all settled on putting their primaries on March 1, 2016, in an effort to increase their influence and force candidates to campaign more in — and cater to — the South.
“It’s time for us to bring God back to our country,” said Carson, another crowd-pleaser.
“People of faith make better leaders,” Fiorina declared.
Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, which cosponsored the forum, marveled at the bounty of outspoken Christian candidates. “What you see on stage today,” Reed told the crowd, “is the fruit of a harvest of decades of prayer and work asking God to give Christians” a greater role in government.
Texas has long been a crucial state for Republican fundraising, with its concentration of oil and energy wealth. When Bush rolled out his list of presidential bundlers last week, Houston had the second most Bush bundlers of any city in the country, trailing only New York City. Nearby Dallas was fourth. But with its earlier primary, voters here have been given a rare chance to see a cross-section of the field in person.
The differences were more stylistic than substantive. Cruz and Huckabee roamed the stage, while Bush opted to stick with the podium. Many spoke about infusing more Christian values in public policy, but Fiorina and Carson spoke more about faith in their own lives.
Carson, in particular, showed off his distinctive appeal for evangelicals, some of whom came clutching copies of his books. He retold his own faith journey and how he ended up as one of the world’s most renowned brain surgeons. Carson said he achieved greatness when he decided, “God, you be the neurosurgeon; I’ll be the hands.”
Throughout the forum, there was much talk about abortion and Planned Parenthood. Carson pushed back aggressively against the idea that he had been involved in abortions while a doctor, saying he had operated on premature babies while they were still in a mother’s womb. “There’s no way anybody’s ever going to convince me that’s a mass of cells that isn’t a human being,” he said.
Each candidate delivered a 10-minute speech to the packed crowd, and then took questions for an additional 15 minutes from Graham, who promised to ask “questions that we care about as Christians.” Few of the queries were very challenging.
Fiorina, the first to speak, was notably quieter and more reflective in the megachurch setting than she has been in other larger venue appearances. She spoke of how her husband’s mother had been recommended to have an abortion — “I have thought often how different my life would be.” And she talked about how “my faith has been tested.”
“I have battled breast cancer. I have buried a child. And through it all the love of my family and my personal relationship with Jesus Christ has seen me through,” Fiorina said.
Santorum, the only Prestonwood speaker who has yet to make either of main debates, arrived early and worked the crowd for pictures and handshakes. He cast himself as an “evangelical Catholic” and cited his placement (way back in 2005) on Time magazine’s list of the 25 most influential evangelicals, despite his Catholicism. On stage, he laughed off his own microscopic poll numbers, citing his similar position four years ago, “I sort of feel comfortable now.”
But he turned far more serious and emotional when Graham asked him, “How can we pray for you?” — the last the question most candidates were asked. Santorum said his wife and children bear most of the brunt of his candidacy. “It kills my family,” he said of the negative stories that circulate during a campaign.
“First and foremost, please pray for our spouses and our children,” Santorum said. “They are the ones the devil wants to get to. That’s the soft underbelly.”
Huckabee, who has previously preached from the Prestonwood pulpit, was among the most comfortable on the stage, joking after about 30 seconds, “I’ve already been given more time than I was given in the last debate!” He also rattled off some of the day’s best-received one-liners, including “Knowledge can be Googled but wisdom comes from above” and dismissing those want to tackle climate change as believing “the greatest threat we face is a sunburn and not a beheading. And that is nonsense.”
Bush, who was last to speak and joked that his driver broke innumerable traffic laws while whisking him straight from the airport — “That turnpike, was that named after my brother or my dad?” he asked at one point — rushed through his delivery.
His strongest moments when discussing how his faith had played out in Florida public policy: defunding Planned Parenthood, banning partial-birth abortion, funding crisis pregnancy centers and creating school-voucher programs.
“I was totally all in on the question of life,” Bush said. “I got to act on it.”
Donald Trump, whose presence has dominated the 2016 campaign in recent months, was not at the forum, and practically went unmentioned. But when Graham told Bush that his brother “did keep us safe, no matter what anybody says” — a reference to Trump recently blaming George W. Bush for 9/11 happening on his watch — it received perhaps the loudest standing ovation of the day.
As for Jeb Bush, when asked people what should pray for him, he said wisdom.
“It’s an arduous journey,” he said of running for president, “in that you can get sucked in the vortex.
And I didn’t even know that the candidates were here in Plano? Where was the publicity? I saw no advertising or commercials and Prestonwood is just a few miles from my home. Maybe they only wanted their church members in attendance?
This is one big church – I should say complex. I’ve been to watch my grandson play football on their football field and they have complete baseball and soccer fields as well. The campus is about the size of a small university. Big time megachurch it is for sure.
Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have gone anyway, being afraid that my (unusual) appearance at church might have brought down lightening or other evidence of heavenly displeasure, but I’m still flabbergasted that I didn’t know about the appearance. Well, no matter, Ted and Ben got the warm welcome that I’d expect from other North Texans anyway.