Almost a dozen presidential candidates, and those who act like they plan to run, walked onto the Peace Center stage Saturday auditioning to win South Carolina conservative voters for the 2016 race.
Missing from the S.C. Freedom Summit were several candidates considered more mainstream – and less appealing to the voters who helped Newt Gingrich defeat the party’s establishment choice, Mitt Romney, in South Carolina’s 2012 GOP presidential primary. That election ended the Palmetto State’s three-decade streak of backing the candidate who would be the party’s nominee.
Many in the crowd of 2,100 conservative Republicans said they were ready to have South Carolina, which holds the South’s first presidential primary, choose someone other than the party’s favored candidate next year.
“We want someone who has conservative principles and honors them,” said Mark Palmer, an Army veteran living in York. “We want someone to take the oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution and then doesn’t do everything they can to undermine it in the process.”
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The crowd at the event, sponsored by the political activist group Citizens United, cheered when speakers said Republicans needed to elect a true conservative who would not compromise on issues such as immigration and abortion. About 2-in-3 S.C. voters in the 2012 GOP presidential primary identified themselves as conservative, according to exit polls by The New York Times.
“Those folks who say you’ve got to moderate and go to the center and be lukewarm to win elections just need to look at the new governor of Maryland (Larry Hogan),” said Jim DeMint, a former U.S. senator from South Carolina who runs the Heritage Foundation conservative think tank. “Our ideas work.”
Speakers did not name the mainstream GOP candidates, but some Republican hopefuls who have been targeted by conservatives – including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham – did not attend the event that aired nationally on C-SPAN and attracted 150 journalists.
While no Republican was called out onstage, the crowd from South Carolina was willing to name names. They said they did not want GOP presidential nominees like Romney and Sen. John McCain, who each lost to Democratic President Barack Obama.
Had Graham and Bush spoken Saturday, Palmer said, “I would have stood up and walked out. I have no respect for them. They have no principles.” He is uninterested in a third member of the Bush family in the White House and was angered by Graham’s votes for less conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices.
Bush winning the nomination would be received coolly by conservatives, like Romney in 2012, said John Scott of Greenville. “A lot of people stayed home, and they might again,” he said. “I hear a few people say they’re afraid of that.”
Bryan Alverson, a pastor from Boiling Springs, said voters at the summit “feel disenfranchised from professional candidates who have ignored the voice of citizens in this country. There’s been an abandonment of the values that been fundamental of our nation that allowed God to bless our nation.”
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Laurens Republican who co-hosted the summit, said he thought the crowd would have welcomed Graham, Bush and Christie had their schedules permitted them to attend.
“I don’t think they’re singing to the crowd that’s here,” Duncan said of the candidates who appeared. “I think they’re throwing out a lot of different talking points to see what sticks.”
The Freedom Summit was a chance for a pair of top-tier candidates, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, to show why they are seen in national circles as electable conservatives.
In South Carolina, they face balancing their values to win over voters in the Upstate, who look at social issues, and those on coast, known for having more interest in the economy.
Walker, who has been in a statistical dead heat with Bush in South Carolina polls, received the bulk of media and audience attention Saturday. In an interview with The State newspaper, Walker touted that he won his races for governor buoyed by a broad spectrum of the GOP as well as a chunk of independents.
“We did it with a model you could use elsewhere,” said Walker, who had not joined the race formally. “It’s not a matter of how conservative you are. Most people would say the good, common-sense conservative agenda that we’ve enacted in Wisconsin would be transferable to the national level, but doing so in a way that independents can say, ‘We need that kind of leadership.’ ”
Walker said that if he enters the race and wins South Carolina, voters should not think that he’s the Newt Gingrich of 2016 with little expectation of winning the party nomination. He said he can balance conservative principles with electability. “Here, and in other states, I think we can make that case,” he said.
Rubio, who did not speak with reporters, did not go in-depth on his conservative credentials in his speech and instead centered on his message about the need for a new era of American dominance.
“There are questions about whether America is still the most powerful country in the world,” said Rubio, who entered the race last month. “We are led by too many people who are trapped in the past, by ideas that no longer work.”
Despite any differences they might have with other Republican voters, conservatives at the summit said they just want to make sure the White House is held by a Republican after 2016.
“We’re trying to dissolve the administration that is holding us down,” said Glen Robinson, a Greenville pastor.
Staff writer Jamie Self contributed.
What they said
A sampling of what declared and potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates said to 2,100 conservative voters during the S.C. Freedom Summit in Greenville.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a declared candidate, on why he supports replacing the existing tax code with a flat tax: “I had the opportunity to experience every economic level in this country. ... A lot of people on the bottom also have pride, and they don’t want somebody patting them on the head saying, ‘No, no, you can’t carry your part of the load.’ They want to be part of the American system also. They don’t want to be freeloaders. What we need to be concentrating on is finding ways to provide ladders so that they can climb out of that situation and realize the American Dream.”
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a declared candidate: “When given the choice between free speech and the political correctness of refusing to acknowledge radical terrorism, it is a time for choosing where we stand. Just a few weeks ago I was down in Fort Hood where the soldiers that were shot by Nidal Hasan were finally ... awarded the Purple Heart. It took over five years for that to happen because the Obama administration refused to acknowledge that was terrorism. ... (A)ll I could say was ‘I’m sorry. This should have been acknowledged the day it happened.’ ”
Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, a declared presidential candidate, on her opposition to abortion: “Life is a continuum, a gift from God, passed through the union of a man and a woman, and every life is filled with potential. I am really tired of being called extreme on this issue. The platform of the Democrat Party is a life is not a life until it leaves the hospital. That, ladies and gentleman, is extreme.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, criticizing President Barack Obama’s foreign policy: “We’ve got a president and commander and chief who likes to spend his time ... warning us about the threat of the crusades. I’ve got a deal for President Obama. If he will do his job as commander in chief and hunt down and kill those radical Islamic terrorists and keep us safe, I’ll make a deal with him. ... I’ll be the one that will be on the lookout for those medieval Christians.”
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, on 2016 and the referendum on leadership: “The issue of our time is not overregulation ... It’s not our failed foreign policy, it’s not even the hollowing out of our military or our porous border. The greatest issue is the lack of leadership to deal with these crises. 2016 will not be an election about lofty rhetoric, but a record of leadership. It will be one of those ‘show me, don’t tell me’ elections where voters look past what you say to what you’ve done.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a declared candidate, on terrorism and foreign policy: “(W)e are at a hinge moment in our nation’s history, where we must decide whether we will embrace the future and confront its challenges or be left behind by history ... (T)he time has come to turn the page, to be proud of our history but to embrace our future ... It begins by accepting the mantle of global leadership, by understanding that we have to, because there is no other nation that can do it instead of us. And that begins by having the strongest military power in the world.”
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, on a strategy for defeating terrorists: “We need to ramp up. If these folks want to bring back a 7th-century version of Islam, then my recommendation is let’s load our bombers up and bomb them back to the 7th century. ... I found myself in a magazine. ... It was ISIS magazine. I was under the heading in the words of our enemy with my picture. I identified who they were and I told the world how to defeat them. That makes me an enemy, but it also makes you a leader that they are worried about.”
New York real-estate mogul Donald Trump, on his reaction to Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was charged with desertion after being released from Taliban captivity: Bergdahl is “a piece of garbage who years ago we would have shot for treason. When I saw his father standing with Obama, I said ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ I love the guys at ‘Duck Dynasty’ – they stay at my luxury hotel. This did not look like ‘Duck Dynasty.’”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, on fighting terrorism: “I can’t tell you how frustrated I am at this president and the people who advise him like Hillary Clinton. You’ve got a president who drew a line in the sand and allowed people to cross to it. ... It is not a matter of ‘if’ another attempt is made on American soil, it is ‘when’ another attempt is made on American soil and, on behalf of your children and mine, I want a leader who’s willing to take the fight to them before they take the fight to us.”