Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a town hall event in Rochester, N.H., Sept. 17, 2015.
Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC

GOP presidential field gathers in South Carolina for post-debate summit


GREENVILLE, South Carolina – Looking to build on newfound debate momentum – or put a lousy performance behind them – almost the entire 2016 Republican field is headed to South Carolina on Friday to speak at Heritage Action’s Take Back America conference.

Heritage Action president Jim DeMint, a former senator and now influential conservative activist, will co-host the event along with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Haley, in addition to being a prize endorsement in the early primary state, has attracted increased speculation as a possible vice presidential choice after earning national attention for her response to the massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston earlier this year.

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The event will serve as a heat check for the candidates as they make their case to a plugged-in crowd of right-leaning activists only two days after more than 20 million viewers tuned in to their second debate.

Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is set for another high-profile platform after holding her ownagainst Donald Trump on Wednesday. Trump was set to speak at the event but pulled out at the last minute, with his campaign citing a “significant business transaction” as the cause. The billionaire real estate mogul came under criticism on Thursday for not pushing back on a questioner in New Hampshire who went on a vicious rant against Muslims and President Obama.

For Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, his speech comes at a time of turmoil amid reports that top donors, concerned about his listless debate performances and collapse in public polls, are calling for major changes and even considering other candidates. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, trying to shake off his own recent struggles, will once again share a stage with Trump as their rivalry escalates – on Wednesday, Bush demanded (unsuccessfully) that Trump apologize to his wife for comments referencing her Mexican heritage. 

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Conservative conferences have so far been especially kind to some of the candidates with strong grassroots followings, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, among others. In addition to the above names, the full slate includes Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former Sen. Rick Santorum.

Heritage Action is best known in Washington for prodding GOP leaders in Congress toward confrontation with the White House, and the conference comes amid yet another looming shutdown fight in which the group is taking a hardline stance. Funding for the government runs out at the end of the month and some members are demanding that the Republican-controlled House and Senate zero out money for Planned Parenthood in any spending bill. The Planned Parenthood fight split the field in Wednesday’s main debate, with Cruz and Fiorina calling on Congress to press the issue and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is not scheduled to speak, warning that the move would backfire and damage the GOP brand.