Marco Rubio

To attract religious voters in Iowa, Marco Rubio plays up his faith

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio prays with Carl Hubbert after a rally Saturday in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio prays with Carl Hubbert after a rally Saturday in Council Bluffs, Iowa. AP

To spread the gospel of Marco Rubio ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucuses, his campaign dispatched a longtime friend from South Florida who could personally attest to Rubio’s faith.

Ralph Arza, the burly and gregarious former state lawmaker turned charter-school lobbyist, hit the streets of Dubuque, in northeastern Iowa, over the weekend. In a rented Buick Enclave on which he had slapped a Rubio bumper sticker, Arza set off on his mission: going door-to-door in the largely Democratic — and heavily Roman Catholic — city on the border with Illinois and Wisconsin to find Catholic voters to convert to Rubio.

“I came all the way from Florida to see if you would support Marco,” he told retiree Carole Welu in her garage. He scored: She told him she’d caucus for Rubio — blizzard permitting — for the first time since the 1960s.

A man who was in the house wore a Marco Island cap. “That’s a sign from God!” Arza said, bursting out in laughter.

God references have noticeably crept into Rubio’s campaign in Iowa, where evangelical Christians who can sway the election like to hear presidential candidates talk openly about their religion. “This election is in God’s hands, as everything is,” he said Sunday morning on CBS News’ Face the Nation.

Late last year, Rubio had made his religious case to a group of evangelical pastors in Des Moines.

His campaign promoted a video clip of Rubio responding to a question from an atheist Iowa voter two weeks ago in which the candidate called faith “the single greatest influence in my life.”

Rubio, like Arza, is Catholic. To at least cut into the support that polls show evangelical voters have for rival Republicans Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Donald Trump, Rubio aired a political ad on Iowa TV about his faith that made no mention of his denomination.

“Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our Creator for all time. To accept the free gift of salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ,” Rubio says in the spot. “The struggle on a daily basis as a Christian is to remind ourselves of this. The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan.”

Rubio has a complicated history with religion. Born Catholic, he briefly converted to Mormonism as a child in Las Vegas before returning to the Catholic Church. He wasn’t devout, though, until he started attending the evangelical megachurch Christ Fellowship with his wife, Jeanette, in Palmetto Bay. His interest in her church made him reconnect with his own, he says, and he attends Mass at St. Louis Catholic Church in Pinecrest while also sometimes attending services at Christ Fellowship with his wife.

In his memoir, An American Son, Rubio credits Arza with leading him back to Catholicism. Arza shared a book with Rubio about the faith, prompting Rubio to go to Arza’s Miami church. (Rubio’s nephew also married Arza’s eldest daughter and converted to Catholicism.)

As he stumped for the past week in Iowa, Rubio made subtle mentions about his beliefs, telling voters to pray on their decision about whom to back at the caucuses. In Thursday night’s televised debate, he delivered a closing statement he had apparently prepared to allude to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

“The Bible commands us to let our light shine on the world,” Rubio said. “Caucus for me on Monday night because if I am your nominee, I will unite this party and I will defeat Hillary Clinton, and when I’m president, America’s light will shine again.”

The Bible commands us to let our light shine on the world.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio

Some voters have taken notice. In Sioux City, an evangelical stronghold where Rubio campaigned Saturday, 25-year-old Linsey Hoard, who works in the local Catholic diocese, said she knew Rubio shared her faith. She was undecided between Rubio and another candidate, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

“I appreciate Marco Rubio’s stance on the family, on religion, that he’s very supportive of family values,” she said, clutching her 10-month-old son, David. “I wouldn’t vote for someone purely because they’re Catholic, but as long as they brought Catholic values.”

(She remained unconvinced after seeing Rubio: “I am really concerned that he seems like he wants to start a war.”)

Arza found another undecided religious voter, Terry Frost, in Dubuque. Frost was visiting from nearby Epworth.

“I’m here for Marco Rubio,” Arza said. “Do you have any questions for me?”

“Where does his faith lie?” Frost asked. “It’s above all else. You have your home, your work and your church, and God should be above all.”

Arza assured him Rubio has a “very strong faith in God,” and mentioned the candidate’s debate-day ritual of going to Mass — even running into rival and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush doing the same thing before the first debate in August in Cleveland.

Frost, a heavy equipment operator, remained noncommittal. “When I talk to God, he’ll let me know where to go,” he said.

Cathy Breitbach, a 62-year-old small-business owner, attended Rubio’s Dubuque town hall Friday with her friend Julie Schlader. They stood in line for more than 30 minutes to shake his hand and get a picture. Both plan to caucus for him.

“He’s like a young Kennedy — he’s laying his life down for us, he’s sacrificing away from his family,” Schlader said.

Added Breitbach: “He’s got God behind him. I’m looking for someone who puts God first.”

Breitbach said she got interested in politics in 2008 when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee openly wore his faith. She still loves him, she said, “but you have to pick someone who’s going to make it.” She likes Cruz, too, but finds “something a little fake about him.”

And if Rubio can’t best Trump to become the GOP nominee?

She’ll vote for Trump, Breitbach said, reluctantly.

“I would have to trust that God has a plan.”

Marco Rubio is just one candidate for the Republican nomination for President in a field that includes a tycoon and a neurosurgeon in addition to governors and congressmen. These candidates have a lot in common, but a lot MORE that separates them.

Miami Herald Political Writer Patricia Mazzei reported from Sioux City. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei

An earlier version of this story misstated Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s religion.