Republican Donald Trump ventures among evangelicals in search of support

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Lowell, Massachusetts on Jan 4, 2016.
US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Lowell, Massachusetts on Jan 4, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Manhattan billionaire Donald Trump, a pro-abortion Republican until recently, appears to have little in common with evangelical Christians. But he is increasingly gaining their support as he openly courts this key voting bloc.

Just two weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, Mr Trump, 69, will speak on Monday (Jan 18) at Liberty University, a private school in Lynchburg, Virginia and an evangelical bastion. The visit coincides with a holiday commemorating civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Speaking at the university has been a rite of passage for conservative presidential candidates from Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to Mr Ted Cruz, Mr Trump's main Republican rival, who launched his campaign there in March.

Mr Cruz, a Texas senator whose father is a Cuban-born evangelical preacher, already enjoys strong support from the evangelical community.

Mr Trump and Mr Cruz are locked in a tight race in Iowa, which on Feb 1 becomes the first state to vote for party nominees.

News that Mr Trump, known more for womanising, an extravagant lifestyle and bombastic rhetoric than for piety, will speak on campus triggered threats of student protests.

Evangelical voters typically support candidates that are conservative on social issues, an area of weakness for Mr Trump.

According to polls, nearly two-thirds of evangelical Republicans say a candidate's position on abortion is the most important issue driving their voting decision.

But Mr Trump, who during his political life has been a Democrat and an independent, is only a recent convert to the "pro-life" anti-abortion position prevalent among evangelical Christians.

In recent weeks, he has stressed his own faith as he stepped up efforts to reach out to this critical Republican voter group.

"I am an evangelical. I'm a Christian. I'm a Presbyterian," he said last month.

And when asked recently about his favourite book, be simply responded: "The Bible." But the real estate mogul can't name a single verse.

Winning over the evangelical voting bloc could set him on a path to become the Republican Party's presidential nominee.

About 70 per cent of Americans describe themselves as Christian, and among Christians one in four say they are evangelical Protestants, according to a Pew Research Center study on religion.

"It's quite mandatory for a Republican to get the support of the evangelicals," said Baylor University professor Lydia Bean, author of The Politics of Evangelical Identity. Mr Trump, she said, "has absolutely no arguments. That's what is interesting".

The reality TV star "has zero claim to be a Christian leader, absolutely zero. Behind the scene, I think that a lot of leaders don't want to support him, they'd rather prefer Ted Cruz", she said.

"That's why he has to attack. Donald Trump doesn't care, he can literally say anything to get what he wants."

Mr Trump is ready to battle Mr Cruz on his own turf, and is not shy about launching personal attacks.

In late December, he proclaimed: "Not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba," a thinly veiled attack on Mr Cruz and his father Rafael Cruz.

He has also questioned whether Mr Cruz, who was born to an American mother in Canada, can even run for president.

This strategy to play offence is already paying dividends.

An early January NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll gave Mr Trump 35 per cent support among evangelicals, just behind Mr Cruz but well ahead of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a Seventh Day Adventist.

Mr Trump is taking advantage of the lack of unity among evangelicals, whose leaders have been unable to publicly choose a candidate among a crowded Republican field that also includes Florida Senator Marco Rubio and ex-pastor Mike Huckabee.

The evangelical voter base feels forgotten by national leaders in Washington and is attracted by anti-establishment candidates like Mr Cruz and Mr Trump.

Mr Trump has an especially high anti-establishment ranking as he has never served in any public office or in the military.

Mr Cruz may have fought the Republican establishment but he remains a US senator - in other words, a much-criticised Washington politician.

Mr Trump's anti-Muslim diatribes find resonance among evangelicals, a group that according to the Pew Research Centre has the least favourable opinion of Muslims in the United States.

"It's an advantage" for Mr Trump, Dr Bean said.

"Unfortunately, for most of the evangelicals, attacking Muslims is the moral thing to do and it is a very good point for him. So yes, we can imagine that he will give some new comments on that."

And if evangelical leaders don't necessarily want him to represent Republicans come the November general election, many "are afraid to attack Donald Trump because he's popular with the base", Dr Bean added.