PLANO – Evangelical voters got a lot of attention from Republican presidential candidates on Sunday afternoon when six major GOP contenders attended a forum at Prestonwood Baptist Church.
Organizers said more than 6,000 people attended the North Texas Presidential Forum to hear directly from former Gov. Jeb Bush; Dr. Ben Carson; Sen. Ted Cruz; Carly Fiorina; former Gov. Mike Huckabee; and former Sen. Rick Santorum. Republican front-runner Donald Trump did not attend.
Dr. Jack Graham said his church invited Democrats, as well, but none accepted.
Evangelical voters in Texas have not had an opportunity like this in the 2016 election. Attracting so many major candidates suggests evangelicals are a bigger target for the Republican Party this cycle.
In 2012, 27 percent of the electorate was evangelical, said Ralph Reed, a conservative political activist who used to run the Christian Coalition in the 1990s. In 2014, 32 percent of the electorate was evangelical. We're not a majority, he continued, but we're the bigger than other voting blocs and sway an election.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, on his home turf, was one of the favorites in this crowd.
"Donald [Trump] has really framed this campaign as, 'who will stand up to Washington?' If that's the issue then the next question is, 'who has stood up to Washington?,'" Cruz said to applause.
Cruz said it was "crazy" that his campaign currently has more money in the bank than Jeb Bush.
No candidates directly attacked each other. Instead, there were subtle swipes – like Rick Santorum comparing his time in the Senate to Cruz's.
"I decided to go there and do what some House and Senate members are trying to do right now. Here's the difference. I won. That's a big difference. There's one thing to go out there and fight all these battles and lose them. It's something else to go fight all these battles and win them," explained Santorum.
Trump declined an invitation to appear in Plano but Mike Huckabee tried to move closer to the New York billionaire's outsider appeal.
"I've never had as single paycheck from Washington. I've never worked there. I've never lived there. And so I don't think I should be held accountable for what a complete disaster that Washington is," said Huckabee.
Carly Fiorina restated her position as an outsider, as well.
There were no surprises from candidates at the event. This was a friendly crowd with the pastor tossing soft questions about faith, Obamacare, religious liberty and judicial activism among other issues.
But Republican candidates clearly hope to mobilize more evangelicals to go to the polls in 2016.
Each candidate got about a half-hour individually on stage. The first ten minutes they could address the crowd directly. The final 20-minutes were at a table with Dr. Jack Graham, the pastor at Prestonwood.
Dr. Ben Carson, who polls second behind Donald Trump, told this crowd that his calm demeanor is a result of his Christianity. He recounted that early in life he used to get upset and angry but stopped after going to church.
Carson also harped on fiscal irresponsibility in Washington and was the only candidate to say the United States needs to step up its space program.
"I believe if I'm successful [as a political outsider] a lot more will enter the fray," Carson told attendees.
Bush was the final candidate on stage.
"I believe in personal freedom, limited government, and commitment to reform," Bush explained.
The former governor reiterated his record in Florida, focused remarks on strengthening families, immigration and reforming the civil service system.
"Every time I start bragging I feel the looming presence of my mom about to whack me behind my head," Bush said to laughs from the audience.
Still, analysts suggested this was Cruz's event.
"Ted Cruz has been going after evangelicals with some success. This is an evangelical crowd on his home turf, so he's got a home field advantage here," said Texas Tribune executive editor and co-founder Ross Ramsey during an appearance Sunday morning on WFAA's Inside Texas Politics.
"Pastor Graham at Prestonwood endorsed Mike Huckabee during his presidential campaign two cycles ago. We'll see which way Pastor Graham goes this time," said Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy on Inside Texas Politics.
Despite the sell-out, not everyone attended, organizers said. The sanctuary holds 7,000 and more than 6,000 showed up. There were empty seats in the balcony at Prestonwood. Still, the church said about 10,200 watched the live stream on its website.
Some in the crowd said they were eager to hear what the candidates had to say, but were disappointed not more of them came in the first place.
"I would've liked to see the full slate of candidates," said Rob Utz.
He specifically mentioned Donald Trump, who has engaged in a recent back-and-forth with Jeb Bush over his brother's handling of 9/11.
"It would've been interesting," said Utz.