If thousands of conservatives gathered Friday in Greenville are any gauge, Republican presidential candidates without political experience are the GOP’s stars at the moment.
Ben Carson, a retired Maryland neurosurgeon, and Carly Fiorina, a former California chief executive, received the biggest applause of 10 GOP hopefuls on the stage of a forum hosted by the Heritage Action conservative advocacy group and S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley.
Fiorina received ovations for criticizing Congress and the White House for not defunding Planned Parenthood after controversial videos went public.
"We cannot be the kind of nation that funds this kind of barbarity," she said
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The third non-politician in the field, GOP front-runner Donald Trump, canceled his plans to attend hours before the forum started at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
A pair of U.S. senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, also were crowd favorites as the candidates took the stage, one-by-one, over five hours.
Rubio said he wants a merit-based immigration policy, vowing to end policies where "America has become a hotel that checks in but never checks out."
Cruz mentioned Democratic President Barack Obama more often than most candidates, engaging the attending conservatives, who hope to regain the White House. But he also took his own party to task.
“We don't need a Republican who will simply manage the decline of this country,” Cruz said.
Five months before the S.C. Republican primary on Feb. 20, the candidates, trying to stand out in a large field, pitched their conservative credentials. The hopefuls took questions from Haley and members of Heritage Action, a sister group of the Heritage Foundation, led by former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who sits third in S.C. polls, pushed state rights. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talked about requiring colleges to provide transparent bills. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal talked about ending Obama’s executive orders.
However, the loudest applause of the night was for Carson, who has surged into second in recent polls, nationally and in South Carolina.
Carson turned warm responses on comments about establishing a program that would have undocumented immigrants pay taxes and curb regulations to boost the economy to a standing ovation for saying the United States is a Judeo-Christian nation as he discussed the peaceful response to the racially charged Charleston church shooting,
Haley, the daughter of Indian-American immigrants, asked Carson, an African American, how the GOP can expand its appeal to minorities.
“We need to show them there is a ladder of opportunity,” Carson responded. “It is our job to take care of the downtrodden, not the federal government.”
Carson appeared more at ease on the arena stage than at Wednesday’s GOP debate in California. He laughed as the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” when he revealed it was his birthday.
Then, he joked that "the best birthday present was I heard Donald Trump had dropped out" of the forum.
Trump, a real estate mogul with no previous elected office experience, canceled his appearance, citing work on a “significant business transaction.”
The timing raised eyebrows.
By canceling, Trump avoided potentially awkward exchanges with Haley, who has criticized his harsh tone. He also avoided reporters asking why he did not correct a speaker at a New Hampshire town-hall meeting Thursday who called Obama a Muslim.
Trump’s absence left an opening for the other non-politician in the race — Fiorina, who received the night’s second biggest response from the crowd.
In addition to her attacks on Planned Parenthood, the crowd responded to Fiorina’s pledge to simplify the tax code and fire workers at the Internal Revenue Service.
They also cheered when she said she wants to punish China for its expansionist policies and cyber-attacks on the United States. She said the United States should go after China while its economy is having problems.
When Haley asked about her toughest business decision, Fiorina referred to the difficulty of layoffs while she was leading Hewlett-Packard, where she was CEO until she was fired. But, Fiorina added, sometimes cuts are needed because bureaucracies have too many people who are not adding enough value.
Asked by Haley about her daughter who died after struggling with drug addiction, Fiorina turned the answer into how she sees a country in need of recovery. “I see too many people in this nation who lack hope in their eyes.”
Haley then took a dig at Trump’s comment about Fiorina’s attractiveness by telling the crowd: “This is what a smart, intelligent face looks like.”
The S.C. governor also was a winner Friday night.
Haley is seen as a rising star in the GOP after her successful call to remove the Confederate flag from the State House over the summer. Friday, she shared a stage with candidates seeking her endorsement — and, perhaps, eying her as a possible vice presidential candidate.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, said Haley, his successor as governor, would make a good vice president.
“From a messaging standpoint, she’s incredibly strong,” said Sanford, who attended the forum. “She has been tested in the conundrum that is the S.C. (Legislature). And, most recently, she’s had something of a trial of fire.”
Democrats to hold presidential forum at Winthrop
The S.C. Democratic Party and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, will host a forum for the Democratic presidential candidates Nov. 6 at Winthrop University.
The forum, being held three months weeks before the Feb. 27 S.C. Democratic primary, will air on cable news channel MSNBC, the party said Friday.
"This forum will give candidates an additional opportunity to focus on the issues that matter to voters in South Carolina and highlight the diversity of the Democratic Party," Clyburn said in a statement.
Additional details will be announced.
Candidates in the state’s GOP primary will debate Fed. 13 at Greenville’s Peace Center. CBS will air that debate.