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Ted Cruz wins big Iowa endorsement. Can he top Trump?

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Susan Walsh/AP

(Read caption) Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas waves as he is introduced to speak at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Forum in Washington on Thursday.

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Ted Cruz on Thursday won the endorsement of a much-courted Iowa evangelical leader, Bob Vander Plaats. The nod was a coup for the Texas senator and reflects his strategy of wooing Christian pastors and churches to boost his chances in the nation’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.

Senator Cruz is “a serious leader for serious times,” said Mr. Vander Plaats.

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Vander Plaats is head of The Family Leader, an umbrella group of Iowa religious and social conservatives. The board of the organization has voted to not endorse a 2016 candidate. In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Vander Plaats stressed that he was speaking for himself.

The competition among GOP candidates for Vander Plaats’s nod was stiff. His last two picks both won the caucuses: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008.

This time around poll leader Donald Trump lost his chance to win the endorsement last November when he declined to attend the Family Leader’s candidate conference, Vander Plaats told the Register. Marco Rubio’s work on immigration reform in the Senate made him suspect, according to the evangelical leader. Ben Carson has a great personal story, but Cruz still won the pick.

“I think what’s appealing about Ted Cruz is he still gives that ‘outside’ appearance. He has not been embraced by the Washington establishment community, on either side of the aisle,” Vander Plaats said.

The endorsement added to the sense that Cruz is gaining momentum in Iowa and heading toward an inevitable clash with Donald Trump for victory in a vote that’s now less than 60 days away.

Right now, Trump is maintaining a narrow lead in the state, according to the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls. He’s the choice of 26 percent of Iowa GOP voters in this measure. Cruz is second, at about 22 percent.

But the Texan has momentum – he’s almost doubled his support since Nov. 20. One recent survey of registered GOP voters, from Monmouth University, had Cruz in the lead by five percentage points.

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As the fateful day fast approaches, Trump and Cruz are pursuing very different Iowa strategies. Trump’s team is casting a wide net and trying to fish new voters into the caucus pool. Cruz is narrow-casting, relying on evangelical and conservative support, as have a number of caucus winners in the recent past.

Monmouth poll data shows how these strategies break out.

Cruz wins about 30 percent of the evangelical vote, according to the Monmouth survey, while Trump gets about 18 percent. That’s important, given that regular churchgoers make up about half the Iowa caucus electorate.

Cruz also wins among tea party activists, 36 percent to 20 percent for Trump.

Trump does better with more independent-leaning voters. He gets about 30 percent of the vote of non-Republicans who say they’re planning to caucus this year on the GOP side.

“Trump will need a huge organizational effort to get independent voters to show up in a contest where they have historically participated in small numbers. Without this dynamic, the underlying fundamentals appear to favor Cruz and Rubio,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.