HOUSTON -- Texas Sen. Ted Cruz returned to his roots Monday night for a rally in the chapel auditorium of Houston Baptist University, where he was touted as a man of faith by his own pastor.
After laudatory speeches from former Gov. Rick Perry (R) and current Gov. Greg Abbott (R), the senator bore witness to his faith -- "I know the meaning of God’s grace through Jesus," he said -- and recited a long list of reasons why Donald Trump should not be the Republican presidential nominee.
Conspicuous by its absence was any mention of Trump's reluctance to distance himself from David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Not a word from the preacherly Cruz about the evils -- for the country and the GOP -- of white supremacists. Nothing about the Christian teachings urging you to love your fellow man.
Cruz has mostly gone missing in this fight. On Sunday, when the Trump-Duke controversy broke, he dutifully, if gingerly, joined the amen chorus of cautious denunciations of The Donald.
"Really sad," Cruz tweeted of Trump's tepid reaction to Duke's endorsement of him. He sanctimoniously advised the front-running Trump, "You're better than this. We should all agree, racism is wrong, KKK is abhorrent."
And that was it.
While Florida Sen. Marco Rubio continues to hammer Trump on the issue of Duke and the KKK, and while other Republicans in Congress -- including House Speaker Paul Ryan -- express their dismay, Cruz hasn't picked up that line of attack. He hasn't done so even though his own Baptist denomination has a long and rich history of opposing slavery in the U.S. and the world.
The reason is simple: On Super Tuesday, Cruz is fighting for every delegate he can get, and that means reaching out to every would-be GOP voter, even those with racist inclinations.
In the South -- in such Super Tuesday battle sites as Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas -- the old term for them was segregationists, or "segs." You know one when you meet one: There's an undercurrent of deep and abiding resentment, a sense they are under siege in a "cultural" war with "them," and the use of "Washington" and "New York" as code words for a federal system that puts "them" above you.
The modern segregationists became a force in 1948, when South Carolina's "Dixiecrat" senator Strom Thurmond led his delegation out of the Democratic Party because it had placed a pro-integration plank in the platform. Those Dixiecrats became Republicans in the era of Ronald Reagan, who launched his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, with a "states' rights" speech near the site where civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964.
In later years, Republicans sought to hide those appeals to racial division behind the rhetoric of a "Big Tent" party, which the Bush family in particular saw as an outreach to Hispanic voters. They succeeded to a surprising degree in Texas, in Florida and in national elections.
Trump is threatening to undo all of that. His governing metaphor isn't a tent; it's a wall.
And Cruz isn't laying into the billionaire for it. Just the opposite. With only the merest gloss of legalism (he is, after all, a self-proclaimed constitutional scholar), Cruz is still trying to match Trump stride for stride on immigration, "radical Islamic terrorism" and race.
He's hoping that will allow him to pick up delegates across the country on Super Tuesday, even if he doesn't actually win anywhere but Texas and Arkansas (his best hopes). He needs the old segs to get there.
But if you've been to enough Trump and Cruz rallies -- and I've been to many of both -- you know from the tenor of the crowds that Cruz is fighting a losing battle for those votes.
Trump has got 'em with his wild rhetoric, his jaw-jutting anger and his disdain. Cruz is too pious and too Ivy League to match his rival.
His own crowds are full of wholesome, Bible-believing, church-attending types. They mostly are drawn to Cruz's message that he will use his legal skills to defend their freedom to worship as they please, where and when they please. It can be a positive message, showing the connection between secular and religious liberty, and it is what his supporters want to hear.
I spoke to a young professional couple attending the rally that night. He's an Anglo non-denominational Christian; she's a devout Catholic from an old Texas Hispanic family. They want to be free to worship in the way they choose for themselves.
They both abhor Donald Trump and his strident views about "them." They would have cheered Cruz had he denounced The Donald and Duke.
But Ted was silent, in a chapel no less.