In Iowa, Ted Cruz rallies religious right

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A crowd of over 2,500 men, women and young children turned out for the three-plus hour event

Cruz spoke about his experience defending freedom of religion at the Supreme Court and what he said were the threats facing religious liberty.

Des Moines, Iowa CNN  — 

Ted Cruz took a page out of his pastor father’s Bible on Friday night in Iowa.

At his “Rally for Religious Liberty,” Cruz sought to appeal to evangelical Republican voters and frame himself as a fighter for religious rights.

A crowd of over 2,500 men, women and young children turned out for the three-plus hour event. Upon arrival at the venue, guests received Ted Cruz Pocket Constitutions, Cruz stickers, mini-American flags emblazoned with “Courageous Conservatives for Cruz,” bracelets reading “Marriage = 1 man + 1 woman,” and, for younger attendees, Ted Cruz coloring books.

Cards and pens were placed on the seat of every chair to sign up attendees to commit to caucus for Cruz, a vital step in campaign organizing here in Iowa.

Cruz spoke about his experience defending freedom of religion at the Supreme Court and what he said were the threats facing religious liberty.

“These threats have been growing, they have been growing for decades but never have the threats been greater to religious liberty than they are right here and now today,” he said.

“These threats are not imagined, they’re not made up. These are real people leading real lives who found themselves facing persecution simply for living out their faith. There is a war on faith in America today.”

Audience members frequently murmured “Amen” as Cruz spoke.

The event featured guest speakers who had faced consequences of upholding their religious beliefs, from losing a job to vandalism to losing a business.

“They didn’t ask for confrontation and the government came to them and said, ‘Choose between faith and obedience to government power,’ and they said, ‘I follow a higher power and that is God almighty,’” Cruz said.

Iowans Dick and Betty Odgaard lost their wedding business for their refusal to hold a same-sex marriage. Ted Cruz interviewed the couple, who received a lengthy standing ovation from the crowd.

“We could not celebrate a sin,” an emotional Betty Odgaard said.

“People and the media attempt to criticize you as somehow intolerant, and yet what is the tolerance that has been demonstrated to you for following a biblical teaching?” Cruz said. “You have endured the pain, endured the attacks, endured the hatred, that precisely put you where you are here today … Dick, you talked about not knowing where your friends are. Well let me point out, there are 3,000 Iowans,” Cruz said to a standing ovation.

Influential conservative talk radio host Steve Deace, who endorsed Cruz’s candidacy this week, called protecting religious freedom “the fundamental issue in this campaign.”

“We can’t have God-given rights if we can’t have our God,” Deace said.

At one point, Cruz was interrupted by a small group of immigration protestors holding a sign that read, “CITIZENSHIP NOW.”

“I appreciate your expressing your First Amendment rights,” Cruz said. “You’re welcome to come to a town hall and I’ll answer your question. Tonight, we’re focusing on religious liberty.”

“U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.,” the audience chanted as they were escorted out by event staff.

For many Iowan voters, Cruz’s message struck a chord.

“I love that Ted’s faith defines who he is,” said Dr. Jim Seward of Fort Dodge, Iowa.

“I saw Rubio, I liked Carson, but as a believer in Christ, I really like that faith-based approach Ted has. It’ll be a tough decision but, as of now, Ted’s got my vote,” he added.

But for undecided voter Bob Duchene, the event lacked substance on the issues.

“It was informative. I would have liked to see a little more on the issues, but that’s not what it was about,” he said.

However, his wife, Karen, a Cruz supporter, walked away a believer.

“I was so inspired,” she said.

The Cruz campaign swung big on the rally: The heavily promoted event was advertised on television and radio, and announced over a month in advance, rare for a campaign event.

While a candidate doesn’t necessarily need to win the Iowa caucuses to garner his or her party’s nomination, the 2016 caucuses will be vital in honing the crowded Republican field, and a good performance could boost fundraising during a competitive primary season.

Friday’s high-profile rally showed the Cruz campaign’s commitment to the first-in-the-nation caucus state, where his team will need to perform well and the evangelical vote could be key to securing a win. Cruz faces competition for the evangelical vote from Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker. Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008 and Santorum won in 2012.

CNN’s Theodore Schleifer contributed to this report.