Story highlights

The Florida Republican has taken opportunities to showcase his Catholic faith in front of voters this month

His campaign has worked to amplify those messages to a broader audience

Des Moines, Iowa CNN  — 

Sen. Marco Rubio has spent the past several weeks on the presidential campaign trail increasingly highlighting his faith, making a closing pitch to religious voters heading into the crucial Iowa caucus Monday.

The Florida Republican has taken opportunities to showcase his Catholic faith in front of voters this month, as his campaign has worked to amplify those messages to a broader audience.

Those close to Rubio insist his faith is an integral part of his life, and all he’s doing is speaking from the heart.

But the campaign also recognizes that it’s an area of strength for the candidate, and one that can make a big difference in Iowa. Nearly two-thirds (57%) of GOP Iowa caucus-goers in 2012 described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians – and the winner of the evangelical vote in 2008 and 2012 went on to win the state.

While Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson are seen as the most religious candidates to Republicans and Cruz and Donald Trump are the top choice of evangelicals in Iowa in polls, Rubio sits in a comfortable third place among them, several points ahead of the next choice, in a reflection of GOP caucus polling more broadly.

That’s good enough for his campaign, which is hoping to spin a strong third-place finish in Iowa into momentum as the anti-Donald Trump, anti-Cruz choice in later states.

Aiming to secure that spot, the campaign and the candidate have been spending the past three weeks subtly increasing its focus on faith.

RELATED: Cruz shifts focus to Rubio

When an atheist voter asked Rubio about his faith early last week, Rubio’s campaign created a video of his response and has been tweeting it, posting it on his website and sending it out in fundraising emails.

The question followed an ad from the campaign earlier this month that featured Rubio speaking directly to the camera about his beliefs. The campaign has also rolled out a steady stream of religious-minded endorsements, including a religious liberty advisory board earlier this month, a dignity of life and South Carolina religious liberty advisory board last week, and on Saturday, an endorsement list from Iowa pastors.

Rubio has been quicker to insert his faith on the trail as well. At the GOP debate on Thursday night, Rubio brought up his beliefs in two questions to which it was loosely related, at best.

Asked about the Time magazine cover labeling him “the Republican savior” and other praise, Rubio started his answer by saying, “Let me be clear about one thing: There’s only one savior and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ who came down to Earth and died for our sins.”

In response to a question about his attacks on the record of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Rubio sent voters to his website and then pivoted back to a previous religion question asked of another candidate.

“I think if you do not understand that our Judeo-Christian values are one of the reasons why America is such a special country, you don’t understand our history,” Rubio said. “When I’m president, I can tell you this: My faith will not just influence the way I’ll govern as president, it will influence the way I live my life. Because in the end, my goal is not simply to live on this earth for 80 years, but to live an eternity with my creator. “

RELATED: Rubio: I won’t embarrass you

He continued the message in front of voters on Friday, answering a question from a woman in Muscatine, Iowa, about moving the U.S. away from abortion.

“I’m a Christian, and Christianity cannot be forced on you. It’s not that kind of religion … you have to accept it or not, but I can’t force you to accept that,” Rubio said to applause. “The number one requirement is love, and so I think voters should hope their leaders are influenced by a faith that teaches that.”

Rubio senior adviser Todd Harris denied that the campaign was strategically encouraging Rubio to talk about his faith, but he said it comes up frequently in front of Iowa voters and is something Rubio is passionate about.

“It would be impossible to spend any time around the Rubio family and not be struck by how important faith is, not just to Marco and Jeanette, but to the kids, too,” Harris said.

Rubio’s Iowa chairman, State Sen. Jack Whitver, also emphasized how organic the sentiment is.

“I think the thing that’s so good about when Marco talks about it is it’s completely genuine,” Whitver said in Clinton, Iowa, on Friday. “When he’s in town and we have a Sunday morning free, he always wants to go to church and he wants nobody to know about it. It’s his time. I think that’s why it’s resonating: it’s genuine and it comes from the heart.”

Still, Harris said the campaign is very much aware of the advantage in showcasing views that appeal to religious voters, especially with anti-abortion messaging.

“It’s no secret that Marco is pro-life, and he believes very strongly in the sanctity of life, and obviously that’s an important issue to evangelical voters and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that that’s a conversation that we’re engaging in,” Harris said.

Rubio using faith to his advantage

Rubio has a complicated history with religion. The practicing Catholic was baptized in the religion, but his family converted to Mormonism for three years while living in Nevada. The family returned to Catholicism and Rubio was confirmed and married in the Catholic Church, but he also attended a Southern Baptist church primarily for years, now splitting his time.

Rubio’s advisers see his ability to speak about his faith as an advantage, or at the very least, not a disadvantage.

Billionaire Republican donor Frank VanderSloot, who supports Rubio, spent more than $1 million supporting Mitt Romney’s failed presidential campaign, and he sees Romney’s aversion to talking about faith as a key factor in his loss.

“If he hadn’t been coached by people not to get into his faith and avoid his faith, I think that was one of his strongest points and he was sensitive about not really going there,” VanderSloot said. “In hindsight, everybody, I believe including himself, wish he had just said, ‘Here’s what I believe.’ And so Marco’s doing that; I think it’s really wise.”

In a recent Pew Research Center survey, Rubio was seen as the third-most religious candidate after Carson and Cruz, with 61% of Americans and 70% of Republicans viewing him as very or somewhat religious.

On the trail in Iowa, voters appreciate the understated approach to faith Rubio has sought.

Larry Villa, a retired salesman from Clinton, Iowa, said faith is an important motivator to voters in his state.

“Obviously, it’s important, because if it weren’t, Cruz wouldn’t be appealing to evangelicals so strongly,” Villa said after a Rubio town hall in Clinton on Friday. “I’m sure that (Cruz) is a Christian, good evangelist, but I think he just comes out more trying to sell it than just letting people know that that’s who he is.”

He added, “I don’t think Marco tries to sell the Catholic faith to try to win votes. I think he points out his faith so that he shows where he’s coming from.”

Michael Brewer, a Lutheran chaplain from Clinton, said he’s always seen Cruz and Rubio as neck-and-neck with evangelicals.

“But I think Marco’s comes across much more real than Ted’s,” Brewer said. “His passion both for the country and for God is real, so I don’t think that it’s calculated in any way.”

His wife, Indra, a businesswoman, agreed.

“I know that Cruz comes from a background where his father was a minister … but I guess it’s all in presentation in the sense that you know someone who’s genuine about their faith and someone who’s forcing it,” Indra said. “Right now, I feel that Ted is maybe utilizing that to garner the evangelical vote, but again, it doesn’t have to be forced if it’s real.”