DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Two Republican senators on Friday were courting a group that could wield powerful influence over the outcome of the state's 2016 GOP presidential caucuses: Iowa's evangelical pastors.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a conservative who rocketed to GOP stardom last year with a primary win over one of Texas' most powerful Republicans, privately addressed the conservative American Renewal Project on Friday morning in his first trip to Iowa.
"Pastors in Iowa and across the country are critical leaders, and pastors have a responsibility to speak up for their convictions," Cruz said after the speech. "I am honored to have the opportunity to visit with pastors who are speaking the truth about the enormous challenges this nation faces."
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the son of former 2012 presidential candidate, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, also spoke at the gathering around midday Friday.
"I think the Republican Party base is people who go to church. If you poll people and ask them if they go to church, maybe 60 percent of them vote Republican," Paul said after the event.
Cruz also headlined a small state Republican fundraiser at lunchtime, while Paul — who visited Iowa in the spring — was set to have a closed-door evening meeting with Latino and African American ministers from around the country. Before that session, Paul said the GOP needs to do a better job of outreach to diversify membership.
"I think if you ask people generically about issues, I think you'll find that a significant number of African-Americans as well as Hispanics are in favor of a lot of Republican positions," said Paul, who was joined by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus for the meeting. "We just need to get beyond whatever it is that is preventing people from considering voting for the Republican party."
But some Republicans, such as Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., see the two tea party favorites having limited appeal to voters, not only threatening GOP aspirations of winning back the White House but the party itself. A top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, King said Friday that he, too, was considering a presidential bid in 2016.
King said the fledgling field of Republican presidential candidates — Paul and Cruz included — were not talking about strong national defense or reaching out to the "old Reagan coalition" of working-class voters, such as construction workers, police officers and firefighters. He specifically cited Paul's filibuster in March to warn against the threat of unmanned drone attacks against U.S. citizens on American soil.
"Both of them endanger us winning nationally and also, more important than that, they hurt our national defense," King said. "The fact that they're out in Iowa, that they right now are setting the tone of the national debate, I think is harmful to the Republican Party, and in the long-run, despite their good intentions, I think it's harmful to the country, harmful to our national defense."
Cruz gave a measured response to King's statements.
"I don't know Mr. King. He is certainly entitled to his opinions," the freshman senator said. "I'm going to keep my focus not on politics but on the substance."
During a feisty lunchtime speech to Iowa state party faithful, Cruz said he wanted to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and defund President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
"The way we get this done is the American people stand together. Stop talking, start acting," Cruz said.
Paul, meanwhile, said he favored a strong national defense but thought some Republicans were too eager to go to war.
"(Former President Ronald) Reagan talks about a reluctance to go to war. That's a historic position of the Republican Party and I think I represent the Reagan tradition of peace through strength, not war through strength," he said.
Wooing evangelical ministers could be key to a Republican victory in the Iowa caucuses, the nation's first presidential nominating event. Cruz, Paul, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — the 2012 caucus winner — all could appeal to the Christian conservative bloc of the party in 2016. None has declared his candidacy yet.
Political experts agreed that the ministers have yet to zero-in on a candidate, and a desire after eight years to put a candidate in the White House more in line with their views might push conservative Christians to consider whether they could live with someone who's more moderate.
"Evangelicals, they are looking. Social conservatives, they are looking," said Chip Saltsman, who was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's campaign manager in 2008. "They want to be on a winning team."
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines and Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.