Columbia, South Carolina (CNN)A small group of 2016 presidential contenders took turns Friday making their pitch to a large gathering of South Carolina's Republican activists, keenly aware of the state's first-in-the-South primary status.
Lindsey Graham on 2016 plans: 'Get ready'
1 of 19
2 of 19
3 of 19
4 of 19
5 of 19
6 of 19
7 of 19
8 of 19
9 of 19
10 of 19
11 of 19
12 of 19
13 of 19
14 of 19
15 of 19
16 of 19
17 of 19
18 of 19
19 of 19
While Ted Cruz, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum competed for the audience's love, it was South Carolina's own senator, Lindsey Graham, who easily carried the night at the state GOP's annual Silver Elephant Dinner in Columbia, dropping serious hints about his own potential White House bid and entertaining the crowd with his witty string of one-liners.
"It's good to be home with people who talk like I do," the senator said. "The next President of the United States should have an accent. That's the only thing I'm going to say about that."
Graham, who was first elected to the Senate in 2002 after representing the state in the House for seven years, went through rounds of thanks to the state's elected officials and widely-known public figures before offering praise of the three presidential hopefuls who preceded him.
He described Cruz as "very funny" and "energetic," while Perry, he said, was a "job-creating juggernaut" in Texas. As for Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, there's "no stronger voice for the unborn," Graham said.
One of the most outspoken Republicans on issue of national defense, the senator also teased a preview of his own presidential aspirations with a word of advice: "Get ready."
"Get ready for a debate that's been long overdue in the party," said Graham, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve. "Get ready for a voice that understands you can't save America without somebody willing to sacrifice and die for America."
"To our enemies, get ready because there's a new way of doing business coming," he continued. "To our friends, get ready for the America that you used to know. To Iowa and New Hampshire, hello. To South Carolina, you have my heart."
While Graham barely registers in recent 2016 polls, his speech nonetheless drew the crowd of close to a 1,000 to its feet.
Also Friday night, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus delivered a pep talk with some tough love on how the GOP can do better in the next presidential race.
He blasted the last process as a "total disaster" because of what he called the "23-debate traveling circus" and criticized the GOP for becoming "a candidate-crazy party to the detriment of all the mechanics."
Priebus has worked to sharply limit the number of primary debates that will take place over the next year and move up the national convention so the nominee can have more time as a general election candidate.
The RNC has also invested heavily in boosting its data-driven strategies and outreach to nontraditional Republicans. "Winning for our party and our country in 2016 is do or die," Priebus said.
Earlier in the night, Cruz, Perry and Santorum delivered brief back-to-back speeches designed to fire up the audience about the next election. Cruz, the only declared candidate on stage, shortened his stump speech and added new Hillary Clinton jabs to the mix.
"The Democratic debate will consist of Hillary and the Chipotle clerk," he joked.
He allowed for the addition of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, saying now the race for the Democratic nomination is a two-person race: "A wild-eyed socialist with dangerous views of foreign policy -- and Bernie Sanders."
For his part, Perry stayed away from Clinton jokes and tried to strike up a bond with the South Carolina audience, reminding them of William Barret Travis and James Bonham, two South Carolinians who fought and died at the Alamo in 1836.
"If it hadn't been for South Carolina, there would be no Texas," Perry said, joking that the state's governor Nikki Haley, who was sitting in the front row, "reminds me of that on a regular basis."
Perry said he feels "a real kinship" with people in South Carolina and praised Graham's hawkish views on national security. "I don't think there's anyone in this country that knows foreign policy better than Lindsey Graham. I'll just tell you that straight up."
Santorum, meanwhile, spent the first part of his remarks saying "South Carolina has changed my life" because two of his sons joined The Citadel, a military college in the state, after they traveled there with their father during his 2012 presidential bid.
Santorum won the Iowa caucuses and battled Mitt Romney unsuccessfully late into the primary season for the nomination. Gearing up for another bid, he's made frequent visits to South Carolina and told CNN in an interview before the dinner that the Palmetto State will be an "important part" of his potential campaign.
"This is a home away from home," Santorum said.
Since his last attempt at the White House, the former two-term senator has been stressing a populist message that aims to appeal to blue-collar workers.
"We need a message that says pro-family, pro-manufacturing, pro-energy, pro-the little guy in America," he said. "Because that's who we are as Republicans. We believe in the little guy's ability to rise, but we don't do a very good job of talking about it."
The four contenders from Friday night join former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Saturday for another round of speeches, this time at the state's GOP convention, which takes place at the same convention center in Columbia as Friday's dinner.