Christian conservative activists whose support has been hotly pursued by Republican presidential candidates have begun to quietly coalesce around Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas - a major boost for his efforts to present himself as the leading challenger to front-runner Donald Trump.
Members of this core GOP constituency have long been torn between several favorites in the party's crowded field. But many organization leaders have decided in recent days to line up behind Cruz because they consider him the best-funded and most electable social conservative in the race, according to several participants in the discussions.
He won the backing of a key evangelical coalition after a secret Dec. 7 meeting in which top national activists agreed to roll out a stream of endorsements, many timed for maximum impact between now and March 1, Super Tuesday, when a dozen states will hold primaries or caucuses. Eight of those states have significant evangelical populations, and Cruz is targeting them in hopes of emerging March 2 with the highest delegate totals of any candidate.
Since the Dec. 7 meeting, endorsements have been announced by influential figures such as James Dobson, a radio host who founded Focus on the Family; Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage; and Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Iowa Family Leader organization.
The next gathering will take place a few days after Christmas at a remote ranch in central Texas, where Cruz, his wife, and several key financial backers will visit with some of the country's most prominent evangelical leaders for private conversations and a public rally.
Some of the 100 or so leaders flying to the ranch owned by conservative billionaire Farris Wilks are still considering other candidates, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who also is maneuvering to be the Trump alternative. But in recent weeks, Cruz has outpaced his rivals in the race to line up religious conservative support.
Although Rubio has stepped up his courtship, activists say he is being hindered by a relatively late start. He has been warmly received but also has encountered some skepticism - he was questioned at a meeting with Iowa pastors last month about his campaign's reliance on money from New York financier Paul Singer, a major GOP donor who supports same-sex marriage, among other causes.
Trump performs well in national polls among self-described evangelical voters, but many top activists and group leaders consider the real estate magnate insufficiently committed to opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.
Other evangelical favorites, such as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, remain popular but are considered unable to defeat Trump.