Sept. 03– FORT WORTH — For those who gathered Thursday at Fort Des Moines Church of Christ to watch the first Republican presidential debate, Ted Cruz is an answered prayer.
“I don’t think we have had a conservative candidate like Ted Cruz probably since Ronald Reagan,” said Pastor Michael Demastus. “He’s a fighter. He is somebody who is a champion of true conservative principles, and he is not going to waver. He’s a guy who stands up to his own party. He is a guy who can very clearly, effectively communicate conservative principles and values.”
Demastus, a bright, bearded presence, is in his small office, wearing camouflage shorts, flip-flops and a gray “Courageous Conservative” Cruz T-shirt, just ahead of the start of the Fox News debate, for which he has opened his church sanctuary to about 40 Cruz supporters — only a couple are members of the church — to watch in political fellowship with one another.
“I think that Cruz is going to do well tonight,” Demastus said. “This is his arena. He’s a national debate champion.”
Demastus recalls a recent scene outside the White House, captured on YouTube, in which Cruz, who was holding a press conference to denounce President Barack Obama’s failure to secure the release of American prisoners in Iran as part of the nuclear deal, defuses an attempt by Code Pink protesters to disrupt his remarks, by engaging them and their leader in dialogue.
“He just used his ability to reason with them,” Demastus said with a warm smile. “He eviscerated her in such a kind way.”
Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, didn’t have the chance to eviscerate anyone at Thursday’s debate. His 6 minutes and 46 seconds of air time, while in the middle of the pack, was well off the 11 minutes and 14 seconds consumed by Donald Trump.
But by debate’s end, Demastus and the others gathered in his church were well satisfied that their man had justified their faith in him.
There might have been no more important audience for Thursday’s prime-time debate on Fox News between the top 10 Republican presidential candidates than Iowa party activists such as those gathered in Demastus’ church.
Iowans vote first, early next year, in caucuses that sometimes go a long way toward determining who the next president will be, and, at the very least, play a crucial gatekeeping role in winnowing the field, an especially arduous and important task with 17 declared Republican candidates.
The most recent Iowa polls show Donald Trump first, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker running second and Cruz a few places back, with about 6 percent support.
About 20 to 25 percent of Iowa Republicans have participated in the caucuses the last two go-rounds, about half of whom identify as evangelical Christians, according to Rutgers University political scientist David Redlawsk, co-author of “Why Iowa? How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process.”
But, for Iowans, Redlawsk said, watching a televised debate from Cleveland is only one very small “data point”
“They’re expecting to see all these candidates in person a lot more over the next six months,” Redlawsk said.
‘They prayed for two hours’
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — both running for president for the second time — have each made multiple visits to Demastus’ church over the years. Demastus is among a group of pastors who traveled with Huckabee to Europe last year.
Shortly after Cruz announced, Demastus and two other pastors met with Cruz and his wife, Heidi, after a rally in Des Moines.
“The guy was tired, but for 90 minutes we sat and we talked. And we talked about really good things. We talked about, well, ‘Tell me about your spiritual life.’ We’re asking him, ‘Tell me about your devotional life. How are you keeping your marriage strong in the middle of something like this? How do you know that it was God’s will that you get involved in this?'”
“These were tough questions we were asking,” Demastus said. “They were both open, very transparent with us.”
The Cruzes told Demastus that when Cruz and his wife decided he was going to run, they, their two young daughters, Cruz’s father, Rafael, himself an evangelical pastor, and two top staffers prayed on it with the pastor of Cruz’s church, First Baptist in Houston.
“They prayed for two hours, for two straight hours in their pastor’s office, and Heidi said it was a miracle because our kids made it through it, the pastor praying over him,” Demastus said. “That’s how they launched their campaign, man, and they’re not touting that. You don’t hear that from the stump. But that’s how it began. That’s powerful. That for me kind of solidified, I’m supporting the right guy.”
For Mark Moberg, 32, who came to the debate watch from his home in Indianola, south of Des Moines, it was the two-and-a-half hours that he and a half-dozen others spent talking recently with Heidi Cruz at the Coffee Connection in nearby Knoxville.
“It was the most genuine experience I’ve had with anyone in politics,” Moberg said. “Afterward she gave my wife a hug, and it didn’t seem forced or anything like that. It seemed genuine.”
” Glenn Beck says he seems too good to be true,” Moberg said.
Betty and Dick Odgaard, who were at the debate watch, met Cruz after they faced a lawsuit for refusing to host a same-sex wedding at Görtz Haus, a bistro, frame and flower shop and wedding venue in a converted old church in the small community of Grimes, northwest of Des Moines.
“We just didn’t want to take part in a religious ceremony that is not ordained by God and not seen as legitimate in his eyes,” said Dick Odgaard. So, a week ago Friday, they shuttered their business.
“In the spring the senator sought us out,” Dick Odgaard said. “He had heard our story and, with the Iowa caucuses around the corner, he wanted to meet us. So we were grateful for that and had a very nice meeting with him and almost developed a friendship out of that.Rafael Cruz will be doing a service (at Görtz Haus) on Aug. 12. Mrs. Cruz was here our last day of business. The only people we haven’t met are their daughters.”
Also, on Aug. 21, the Odgaards will be among the special guests “victimized by government persecution” at a Cruz “rally for religious liberty” at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines.
“We’re the show and tell,” Dick Odgaard said.
‘You shall know them by their fruit’
Demastus threw himself into politics after the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous 2009 decision permitting same-sex marriage, working on the successful 2011 campaign that removed three of those judges.
In 2012 he backed Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, for president, until, he said, her campaign imploded.
That same year, Demastus said, “our church was protested by the homosexual community in Des Moines because I put up on our church marquee “GAY IS NOT OKAY,” which was the title of a sermon I was preaching that particular Sunday. I was not saying that gay people are not OK. I was saying that the behavior was not OK.”
On debate night, the message on the marquee read, “SHUT PLANNED PARENTHOOD DOWN NOW!”
“America has to decide if we’re going to go over the edge or not,” Demastus said. “There are people who literally don’t want any kind of moral conscience in the public arena any more. That discussion just needs to be voided out.”
“I don’t know that we’ll see the tide turning on all those issues like marriage and abortion overnight, but I do think those particular issues have helped us take a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror about who we are as a culture,” he said.
The debate watch crowd is disappointed when a question on religious liberty isn’t directed to Cruz.
But, toward the end of the debate, co-moderator Megyn Kelly turns to Cruz.
“In our final moments here together, we’re going to allow the candidates to offer their final thoughts. But first, we want to ask them an interesting closing question from Chase Norton on Facebook, who wants to know this of the candidates: ‘I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.’ Sen. Cruz, start from you. Any word from God?” Kelly asked.
“Well, I am blessed to receive a word from God every day in receiving the scriptures and reading the scriptures. And God speaks through the Bible,” Cruz said. “I’m the son of a pastor and evangelist, and I’ve described many times how my father, when I was a child, was an alcoholic. He was not a Christian. And my father left my mother and left me when I was just 3 years old. And someone invited him to Clay Road Baptist Church. And he gave his heart to Jesus, and it turned him around. And he got on a plane and he flew back to my mother and me.”
They are applauding in Fort Des Moines Church of Christ.
Cruz continues: “I would also note that the scripture tells us, ‘you shall know them by their fruit.’ We see lots of ‘campaign conservatives.’ But if we’re going to win in 2016, we need a consistent conservative, someone who has been a fiscal conservative, a social conservative, a national security conservative,” Cruz said. “There are real differences among the candidates on issues like amnesty, like Obamacare, like religious liberty, like life and marriage. And I have been proud to fight and stand for religious liberty, to stand against Planned Parenthood, to defend life for my entire career. And I will be proud to continue to do so as president of the United States.”
Demastus pumps his fist and issues a big grin, as others in the church shout, “Woo hoo!”
‘A bold and courageous leader’
Bob Vander Plaats, who as founder and head of the Family Leader, a social conservative organization based in Des Moines, is an evangelical kingmaker in Iowa politics, watched Cruz up close in Cleveland.
“One thing we’ve said about Cruz from the first time we had him here two or three years ago is that sometimes he can come off too smooth, too attorneyish almost. But I think you can see he’s very skilled, he paused at the right time, he also paused for effect, you guys need to get this,” said Vander Plaats on Friday morning, back in Des Moines.
“He’s new, he’s fresh, he’s a bold and courageous leader,” Vander Plaats said.
But just as important, Vander Plaats said, “I think people look at Cruz and they see a president.”
“For a long time we desired to see a movement conservative, a full-spectrum conservative with the resources behind him to go the distance,” Vander Plaats said.
So far, Cruz has raised more money in both direct and super PAC contributions than any candidate but Jeb Bush.
“The people funding him, they are definitely true believers,” Vander Plaats said. “They believe this is the time, he’s the guy, let’s get him over the finish line.”
Vander Plaats plans to announce his choice for president probably sometime around Thanksgiving.
In the meantime, he is enjoying the bounty of being a political player in Iowa.
“I said to somebody last night in Cleveland, I love this time of going through this. At the same time, I hate it. You know we develop friendships with all these guys and their teams,” he said. “I know when you go out and endorse one you’ve made one happy, and the other ones ….”
“You’d like to be able to have these guys as friends long term,” he said.
“We take it for granted, honestly, but it’s quite an honor that we have to really get close to these people and see them regularly,” said Demastus. “You don’t get that any place else.”
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