Republican Cruz taps homeschool niche in battle for Texas

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Texas Primary May Be Cruz' Last Stand

Feb 29 (Reuters) - If Republican Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz lands a win in the nominating contest in his home state of Texas on Tuesday, part of the credit will go to support from a small and often overlooked interest group: homeschoolers.

The U.S. Senator's campaign has invested months of effort courting the well-organized network of families who educate their children at home - often to avoid constraints on religion in public school - in the hopes they can keep a big chunk of conservative voters away from his rivals, billionaire Donald Trump and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

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"They were crucial to our win in Iowa and will be in Texas (as well)," said Cruz campaign spokeswoman Catherine Frazier, referring to Cruz's only victory in a string of four contests for the party's presidential nomination so far that have otherwise been swept by Trump.

The Cruz campaign has used its message of religious liberty and small government to draw some 6,670 members to its "Homeschoolers for Cruz" coalition in recent months - many of whom campaign on his behalf.

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Republican Cruz taps homeschool niche in battle for Texas
Texas Solicitor General R. Ted Cruz, left, and Don. R. Willett, right, leave the federal courthouse after a pre-trial hearing on Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2003, in Austin, Texas. Lawyers and federal judges met earlier to plan for the upcoming redistricting trial. Willett is deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
Ted Cruz, from the Texas Attorney General's Office, speaks to members of the House Ways and Means Committee Tuesday, April 18, 2006, in Austin, Texas. Texas lawmakers embark on a 30-day special session to repair the state's method of paying for public education. Cruz explained the court rulings on school finance to the committee. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
UNITED STATES - MARCH 21: Ted Cruz (R) Texas (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call)
Texas US Senate Republican primary candidate Ted Cruz, left, talks with his father Rafael Cruz as he works at the campaign's phone bank, on election day, Tuesday, May 29, 2012, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Texas Republican Ted Cruz speaks to reporters Tuesday, May 29, 2012, in Houston. Cruz placed second behind Lt. Gov. David Dewurst in a field of nine candidates in the Republican primary race for a U.S. Senate seat. Cruz and Dewhurst will square off in a second round of voting July 31. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
U.S. Senate Candidate Ted Cruz, right, has a discussion with David Dewhurst supporter Sherri Heinzman before the Texas Federation of Republican Woman luncheon during the Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth, Texas, Friday, June 8, 2012. Cruz is competing with Dewhurst for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. They face a runoff July 31 after no one in a crowded GOP field won a majority of the votes cast in last month's primary. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz arrives for a luncheon near the state Republican convention, Friday, June 8, 2012, in Fort Worth, Texas. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
U.S. Senate candidate candidate Ted Cruz and his wife, Heidi, wave to delegates after he spoke on the final day of the state Republican convention at the FWCC on Saturday, June 9, 2012, in Fort Worth, Texas. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2012 file photo, Sen.-elect Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, smiles as he listens to campaign chief consultant Jason Johnson go over election results as they come in, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, speaks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Cruz was scheduled to speak on the scope of treaty power in the U.S. Constitution. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2014 file photo, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. Never mind dropping oil prices. U.S. producers are pushing harder than ever for the right to sell U.S. crude oil overseas. It might seem counterintuitive: Oil prices are as low as they have been at any point since 2009 and the height of the Great Recession. Depending on the projection, prices could drop further still with slowing economies across the world. Oil producers are playing a longer game, betting that long-term demand remains strong and new markets offer lucrative rewards for U.S. producers. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)
LYNCHBURG, VA - MARCH 23: Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) stands on stage his his daughter, Catherine Cruz, 4, left, his wife, Heidi Cruz, and his older sister, Caroline Cruz, 6, right, after he made a speech announcing his candidacy for a presidential bid at Liberty University on Monday March 23, 2015 in Lynchburg, VA.(Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks as he campaigns Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
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"One thing to understand about homeschoolers is we are all networked," said Ken Cuccinelli, a member of Homeschoolers for Cruz and an occasional campaign surrogate.

He said the group has used email pleas, door-knocking, and old-fashioned word-of-mouth to win votes. "The real rock stars are the teenagers. They have so much energy... And work ethic. They just churn through work like us old people don't."

Cruz's campaign is betting that support like that will help him secure a win in Texas - the biggest prize among the 12 states holding Republican nominating contests on Super Tuesday.

Texas has 155 delegates and a big win for Cruz could potentially shift the balance of the race to decide who will be the Republican nominee at the Nov. 8 presidential election. Trump currently has 82 delegates to Cruz's 17.

Only around 3.5 percent of schoolchildren in the United States are homeschooled. But the families that endorse homeschooling can have outsized political influence in some states and are often conservative.

Many proponents of homeschooling share two important traits: a bent toward religion and a tendency to carefully guard against education policy changes that could affect them personally.

"(Cruz) is going to make sure that the federal government will not infringe on what we believe is our God-given right," said Will Estrada, a Virginia-based co-chair of Homeschoolers for Cruz and a lawyer at the Home School Legal Defense Association - which does not typically endorse candidates before the general election.

CRUZ LEADS TEXAS

Homeschoolers help candidates tap into the evangelical vote, long thought to be Cruz's firewall in Southern states, even though he has struggled to win the conservative Christian vote amid the challenge by Trump.

Cruz leads Trump in Texas, 36.2 to 26.6 percent, according to a RealClearPolitics poll average, one of few leads predicted for the Texas senator for March 1 contests.

The stakes are high for Cruz on Tuesday. At a recent presidential forum at Regent University in Virginia, also a Super Tuesday state, Cruz warned that a runaway victory for Trump could make the billionaire businessman "unstoppable."

Marlin Bontrager, a homeschooler parent whose family gospel band tours the country by bus, said he's supporting Cruz in part because he worries that secular education has contributed to a drop in the American intellect and the rise of Trump, as well.

"Our educational system has(...) dumbed down our society. And we're seeing the effect of that this election," he said, referring to the broad support for Trump.

In 2008, homeschoolers in Iowa mobilized around then-Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, helping him win the state.

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Republican Cruz taps homeschool niche in battle for Texas
Republican presidential candidate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, left and Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump talk at a break during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., looks on during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, looks on during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Republican presidential candidate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, right, speaks as Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, left, and Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, center, react during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Ohio Gov. John Kasich walks onstage before the Republican presidential debate at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The debate is the last before the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo-Pool/Getty Images )
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Donald Trump (L) answers a question as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) looks on during the Republican presidential debate at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The debate is the last before the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo-Pool/Getty Images )
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) walks onstage before the Republican presidential debate at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The debate is the last before the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo-Pool/Getty Images )
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Republican presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (L) and Ted Cruz (R-TX)(R) listen as Donald Trump answers a question during the Republican presidential debate at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The debate is the last before the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo-Pool/Getty Images )
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at the Republican presidential debate at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The debate is the last before the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo-Pool/Getty Images )
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Ben Carson speaks during the Republican presidential debate at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The debate is the last before the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo-Pool/Getty Images )
US Republican Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz is seen on television in the CNN filing room during the Republican Presidential Debate at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas on February 25, 2016. / AFP / Thomas B. Shea (Photo credit should read THOMAS B. SHEA/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, center, speaks as Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., left, and Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, right, look on during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
US Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump is seen on television in the CNN filing room during the Republican Presidential Debate at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas on February 25, 2016. / AFP / Thomas B. Shea (Photo credit should read THOMAS B. SHEA/AFP/Getty Images)
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Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
From left, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., businessman Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas prepare for a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
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HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Republican presidential candidates Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (L-R) stand on stage ater being introduced for the Republican National Committee Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Houston's Moores School of Music Opera House on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The candidates are meeting for the last Republican debate before the Super Tuesday primaries on March 1. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
From left, Republican presidential candidates, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., businessman Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich listen to the U.S. national anthem before a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Moderator Wolf Blitzer (L) and US Republican Presidential Candidates (L-R) Ben Carson , Marco Rubio , Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich prepare for the Republican Presidential Debate at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas on February 25, 2016. / AFP / Thomas B. Shea (Photo credit should read THOMAS B. SHEA/AFP/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Workers prepare for the Republican presidential candidates to meet at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The debate is the last before the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo-Pool/Getty Images )
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Donald Trump (L) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) talk over each other in the Republican presidential debate at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The debate is the last before the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo-Pool/Getty Images )
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN listens to the answers to a question during the Republican presidential debate at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas. The debate is the last before the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo-Pool/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
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