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Cruz's evangelical outreach shifts into high gear

Sen. Ted Cruz, who has assiduously courted evangelicals throughout his presidential run, will take a lead role in the launch this week of an ambitious 50-state campaign to end taxpayer support for Planned Parenthood — a move that is likely to give the GOP candidate a major primary-season boost in the fierce battle for social-conservative and evangelical voters.

More than 100,000 pastors received email invitations over the weekend to participate in conference calls with Cruz on Tuesday in which they will learn details of the plan to mobilize churchgoers in every congressional district beginning Aug. 30. The requests were sent on the heels of the Texas Republican's "Rally for Religious Liberty," which drew 2,500 people to a Des Moines ballroom Friday.

"The recent exposure of Planned Parenthood's barbaric practices . . . has brought about a pressing need to end taxpayer support of this institution," Cruz said in the email call to action distributed by the American Renewal Project, an organization of conservative pastors.

The push comes as Cruz seeks to grab a decisive edge in a crowded primary-within-a-primary, with half dozen GOP contenders battling for what he has referred to as "the evangelical bracket."

Roughly 1 in 4 voters have identified themselves as evangelical in exit polls from the 2004 campaign on. In key Republican primaries such as Iowa, and in some of the Southern states that Cruz has said are critical to his run, that figure was higher during the last presidential campaign — nearly 50 percent.

Cruz has consistently pointed to his ability to motivate those voters as a key element of his 2016 strategy. Earlier this summer, he said repeatedly that his main bases of support were tea party voters and religious conservatives.

Heading into the primary season, it wasn't clear how significant a role social issues would play in the ultimate selection of the Republican nominee. But social conservatives and evangelical voters say they have been galvanized by a one-two punch this summer: first, the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states and, second, the release of hidden-camera videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the donation of fetal tissue.

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