Republican candidates court faith and evangelical voters in Upstate forum

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., accompanied by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, speaks during a Faith and Family Presidential Forum at Bob Jones University on Friday in Greenville.

GREENVILLE — The fight among Republican presidential candidates for the evangelical vote officially started Friday on the eve of the only GOP debate before next Saturday’s primary.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio participated in the Faith and Family Presidential Forum at Bob Jones University. Palmetto Family President Oran Smith and State Attorney General Alan Wilson moderated the five-hour event.

All of the candidates were asked the same questions, ranging from what type of role faith plays in their lives to how they would solve the country’s illegal immigration issue. The appearances of Cruz and Rubio received the most enthusiasm from the crowd.

Republican primary frontrunner Donald Trump skipped the event to attend a rally in Florida. He instead sent Upstate Pastor Mark Burns in his place. Ohio Gov. John Kasich also did not attend.

Some ranking Republicans said skipping the event was a missed opportunity for the two top finishers from New Hampshire to woo hundreds of undecided voters.

“People came because they don’t know who they’re supporting,” Wilson said. “One woman said after hearing the candidate today she’s back on the undecided list. This is a huge voting bloc of the Upstate and on the eve of the debate.”

Taylors resident Julie Warren, 35, was among those still not sure who to back on Feb. 20. She attended the event because she wanted to be more informed.

“I feel like faith has a definite place in politics because it really defines who you are and how you act,” Warren said. “So I am a faith person, but I don’t feel like that’s should be your only factor when voting.”

Wilson said he was at a loss to say why evangelical voters are split in their support among the Republicans. He acknowledged, though, that even in his absence, Trump is still the clear favorite.

Trump appeals to voters because he’s new, exciting and different than any candidate they’ve ever seen, Wilson said. And even though other candidates may show a more religious inclination than Trump — Cruz was the only candidate to quote scripture at Friday’s event — what some voters say they love about him “is that the establishment hates him,” Wilson said.

“When I was speaking with one Trump supporter, and I asked why are you supporting Mr. Trump said ‘he’s my middle finger to establishment’,” Wilson said.

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 843-708-5891.