Trump and Cruz: The Populist vs. The Preacher

Story highlights

  • Ted Cruz is upping his push for evangelical voters as the Iowa caucuses approach
  • Donald Trump is sticking with his populist, economic message

Columbia, South Carolina (CNN)The battle lines are being drawn.

For months, Ted Cruz hugged Donald Trump so closely on substance and style that it was nearly impossible to divine any ideological split between them.
Now, with 17 days until Iowa Republicans crown one of them a king, "the bromance is over," as Trump put it on CNN Thursday night after the two men had a spirited debate over the meaning of "New York values" and Cruz's eligibility to be president because he was born in Canada as a U.S. citizen.
    The two Republican candidates were once fellow soldiers incensed by Washington, dead-set on burning it down and ripping power away from its corrupting forces. But in the final weeks, Trump and Cruz are seemingly tailoring and narrowing their message to the different audiences that they expect to form their bases come caucus night in Iowa February 1.
    They are both going after traditional Republican strongholds: the white, working class men who have given Trump's candidacy a meteoric lift, and traditional values voters in the heartland and here in the South who have formed the backbone of the GOP for decades and are consolidating around Cruz.
    For Trump, it is a pitch to the politically aggrieved and economically disenfranchised. To his supporters, he channels their frustration with new threats to their job security and to the country's borders.
    "I'm very angry because our country is being run horribly, and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger," Trump said at the Fox Business Network debate Thursday night. "And I won't be angry when we fix it."
    Cruz, originally just a tea party sensation, has worked diligently to expand his political profile and highlight his evangelical bona fides in order to make sure they turn up in Iowa, where he and Trump are virtually tied in the polls. Making things more difficult, voters there are still somewhat split between a half-dozen candidates with some Christian appeal.
    "We're losing our country and we have to be courageous and stand up for God and what's right," said Ellen Kayton, after hearing Cruz at an event centered on religious liberty here in South Carolina this fall. "We need to tell people about Ted Cruz, and talk especially to Christians and make sure they get out and vote."

    "New York values"

    Cruz has used the phrase "New York values" in his attempt to draw a loaded distinction between him and Trump.
    Asked about the phrase at Thursday's debate, Cruz said, "I think most people know exactly what New York values are," adding, "Everyone understands that values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage, focused around money and the media."
    Trump fired back with an emotional response, citing the city's response after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. "I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York," Trump said. "The people in New York fought and fought and fought. We saw more death and even the smell of death and it was with us for months."
    On Friday, Cruz doubled down, offering an "apology" to those offended by his criticism of "New York values." "Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio have all demanded an apology, and I'm happy to apologize," he told reporters after an event here. "I apologize to the millions of New Yorkers who have been let down by the liberal politicians in that state."
    To make sure his message was clear, Cruz added: "People are waking up, and just like millions of New Yorkers, they are fed up with policies that don't fight for the working men and women of this country, but instead further the elite liberal views that have taken this country down a path that is not working."

    Tea party meeting Saturday

    The pair will square off in South Carolina on Saturday at a tea party convention in Myrtle Beach that is likely to fuel additional flames between the Republican front-runners and offer the closest look in months at the growing schism.
    Both candidates are appealing to voters with a message that the nation is slipping away. And neither candidate is prepared to cede any ground to the other: Trump, often brandishing a Bible and touting the latest surveys, likes to tell audiences that he is doing "great with the evangelicals." Cruz's most celebrated television advertisement so far uses lawyers and reporters illegally crossing the border to expose the economic impact of illegal immigration.
    In the homestretch, both are doubling down on what energizes their bases. Trump's latest spot, released Friday and titled "Our Country," features him speaking to a roaring, largely white crowd in downtrodden Lowell, Massachusetts, pledging to "take our country" and "make it greater than ever before." A day earlier, Cruz unveiled in a video the endorsement of "Duck Dynasty" superstar Phil Robertson, featuring a face-painted Cruz duck hunting in swampy Louisiana fields.
    "It's smart for Cruz to try and turn this into a values debate," said Walter Whetsell, an unaligned GOP consultant here, who added that the specific "New York values" line on Thursday night was ineffective. "If he'll define what that means, I think people here will connect those dots. If he doesn't, they won't."
    Since the summer, Trump has gathered thousands of people into stadiums and farms like the one he lit up Friday in Urbandale, Iowa. Supporters from across the ideological spectrum flock to hear his stemwinders, including Democrats and some other Iowans unlikely to actually cast ballots when voting begins.
    But as Trump tells it, massive campaign events merely to vent their economic frustrations are not enough. He has recently begun telling his fans that his campaign won't have meant anything for those worried about the labor market if he doesn't actually win states -- his final try to boost turnout by stoking economic horrors.
    "I'm tired of the regular politician," said Adrie Groeneweg, the founder and owner of the Pizza Ranch franchise who endorsed Trump on Friday. "I just know, average Americans, he's going to take care of us."