Perry, Cruz get warm receptions in South Carolina

04:28 - Source: CNN
The 'Inside Politics' forecast
Columbia, South Carolina CNN —  

A small throng of GOP presidential contenders descended upon South Carolina this weekend as some of the state’s most involved Republican activists gathered in Columbia for their party’s convention.

White House hopefuls took the stage Saturday to give speeches that focused heavily on foreign policy – a big issue for a state that has eight military installations.

But it was Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz, also of Texas, who garnered the most enthusiastic responses from the crowd with fiery performances railing against the Obama administration and laying out their visions for the future.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham also made their case for their likely presidential bids.

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In multiple conversations with delegates and other activists after the speeches, South Carolina voters were generally impressed with all of the candidates who spoke.

“It is overwhelming, but I’m real happy with the ones I’ve listened to today,” said Brenda Munnerlyn of Greenwood, adding that she especially loved Perry.

“He just gave me cold chills,” she said.

Perry, who is expected to make a second bid for the White House after flaming out early during the 2012 primaries, fired up the audience when forcefully defending Second Amendment rights. He got perhaps the biggest applause of the day when he said “the best defense against crime is an armed citizen.”

On foreign policy, the former governor signaled he would take a more forceful approach than the current administration. For his own record, Perry pointed to his decision to put National Guard troops at the U.S.-Mexico border last year and hounded the federal government for failing to control the border.

He also talked up his time as governor for 14 years, driving home a point he’s been making on the trail that voters will ultimately choose someone with executive experience – a knock against the three first-term senators, including Cruz, who are running for president.

“2016 isn’t going to be an election about whoever’s got the loftiest rhetoric,” he said. “Folks are going to look past at what people are saying and look at what you’ve done.”

Alan Morgan, third vice chairman in the Greenville County GOP, said Perry’s attempt at a second chance may be able to help the former governor’s image, but he argued it’s too early to tell whether Perry will be able “to totally erase” his history as a poor debater in 2012.

In his speech, Cruz blasted President Barack Obama for not calling out “radical Islamic terrorism” by name and got a standing ovation for saying the administration has demonstrated “shameful hostility” to Israel.

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He also focused on religious freedom in regard to the controversial law in Indiana that was tweaked after critics accused it of being discriminatory against same-sex couples. “I will not flinch from defending religious liberty,” he said.

An expert debater known for his oratory skills, Cruz typically gets strong reviews from audience members at Republican cattle calls in early voting states. And while events like the convention on Saturday provide a sense of how the candidates are being perceived, they generally comprise a more conservative audience than the general Republican electorate.

Bush used the event to introduce himself and tout conservative moves he made as a two-term governor. He also called for a more engaged foreign policy and dished out some red meat lines attacking Hillary Clinton.

“She had her fingerprint on all these foreign policy disasters,” Bush said after listing what he considered bad decisions by the Obama administration.

Santorum also went big on national defense and decried the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, saying the first thing he’d do if president is “take any agreement with Iran and put it in the trash can.”

He also said Islamic terrorists – namely ISIS – are trying to return the Middle East to “7th Century Islam.”

“So let’s bomb them back to the 7th Century,” he added.

Graham seized on the recent protests and riots in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, saying Republicans can turn big cities around by “shutting down failing schools and replacing it with something that works.”

“I see a Republican Party giving people in Baltimore and nearly every other big city hope like they haven’t seen in past eight years,” he added.