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2016 GOPers woo conservatives ahead of South Carolina primary

Republican presidential hopefuls competed to wow conservative activists with tough talk on foreign policy and social issues in South Carolina on Saturday.
Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during the Freedom Summit in Greenville, S.C. May 9, 2015. (Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters)
Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during the Freedom Summit in Greenville, S.C. May 9, 2015. 

GREENVILLE, South Carolina — Republican presidential hopefuls competed to wow conservative activists with tough talk on foreign policy and hard lines on social issues in this early primary state at Saturday’s Freedom Summit, a candidate showcase sponsored by Citizens United. 

Scheduled speakers include Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, real estate magnate Donald Trump, and former New York governor George Pataki, among others. Fiorina and Carson each declared their presidential candidacies this week. Cruz and Rubio have also announced their runs, while the rest are still weighing whether to formally launch a campaign.

Walker, who will take off for a trip to Israel this weekend to burnish his Middle East credentials, devoted much of his speech to national security, or what he termed instead “safety” issues.

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“National security is something you read about in a newspaper — safety is something you feel,” he said. 

Turning to the economy, Walker touted his blue-collar background while simultaneously defending big banks from criticism.

The American dream is "not out of reach because of Wall Street, it’s out of reach because of K Street."'

“[The American dream is] not out of reach because of Wall Street, it’s out of reach because of K Street,” he said, referring to the lobbyist-heavy Washington neighborhood. “We need to get government out of the way and put power back in the hands of the American people.”  

Walker was joined by other candidates who also devoted hefty portions of their speeches to criticizing nuclear negotiations with Iran and pledging further action against Islamic State militants. Rubio told the audience he would model his approach to terrorism on Liam Neeson’s catchphrase in the film "Taken": “We will look for you, we will find you and we will kill you.”

Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who has fielded criticism for a lack of experience serving in political office, rattled off a laundry list of actions she would take to combat ISIS. 

“We can arm the Kurds as they have been asking us to do for years, we can share intelligence with the Egyptians, we can give the Jordanians bombs and material so they can help fight this fight for us," she said.

Social issues also got plenty of play in the evangelical-heavy state. Cruz called out unnamed rivals for not forcefully defending Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act after it came under fire from critics who accused it of enabling businesses to discriminate against gays. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, himself a potential candidate, eventually agreed to change the law to clarify its intent. 

“There are candidates running in 2016, even candidates in the Republican field, who when Indiana was being battled, they were nowhere to be found,” Cruz said.

While candidates generally sided with the Indiana law, some were less enthusiastic than others — Walker reacted to the backlash by noting his own state does not take the same approach. 

Jindal, who is backing new legislation in Louisiana that would protect businesses and individuals who object to gay marriage, also highlighted his support for Indiana’s law.

“We shouldn’t have to choose between following our scripture, following our consciences, and operating our businesses,” he said.

Carson waded into the issue, as well: “The fact of the matter is what we do need to make sure we never do in this country is force our beliefs on someone else, and that needs to go in both directions,” he said. “So the left doesn’t get to force their beliefs on anybody else.” 

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Cruz and Jindal each mentioned the recent attack in Garland, Texas, at an event devoted to drawing the prophet Muhammad — a practice some deem prohibited by the Quran. The Texas senator thanked police officers for shooting the suspected attackers and helping them “meet their virgins,” while Jindal called on Muslim leaders to condemn adherents who commit violent acts by name and say they’re going “straight to hell, where they belong” for their actions.

“When you say things like that, the left will call you racist, they will call you anti-Muslim,” Jindal added.

Carson has been one of the most aggressive culture warriors in the field and suggested this week to CNBC that gay marriage could lead to legal bigamy or incest, but he told the press on Saturday that he was trying to soften his language in general.

“You’ve probably noticed in recent weeks that I’ve toned it down a little bit. I’ve come to realize when you say certain things, people can’t hear anything you say.” '

“You’ve probably noticed in recent weeks that I’ve toned it down a little bit,” he said. “I’ve come to realize when you say certain things, people can’t hear anything you say.” 

The event, whose co-sponsors included the Tea Party Patriots and conservative news site Breitbart, was focused on firing up the party’s most devoted followers. Amid the celebration of all things right, however, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) expressed unease with the party’s ability to attract young and Hispanic voters in contrast to the mostly older, overwhelmingly white supporters who made up the audience. 

“Look around this room,” he said. “Convincing you is not the issue.”

On immigration, a key issue with Latino voters in the 2012 election, candidates have disagreed most intensely on whether to grant legal status and possible citizenship to undocumented immigrants. 

Recently, however, legal immigration has also become a flashpoint: Santorum called for a reduction in immigration levels in his speech on Saturday, and Walker, who did not mention the issue in his remarks, has previously expressed concern that even immigrants here legally could take jobs and depress wages for American workers.

“We need a legal immigration system that supports the American worker, and so I fought for a 25% reduction in unskilled labor coming into this country competing against Americans workers,” Santorum said. 

Santorum’s position puts him to the right of the field, many of whom have called for easing legal immigration even as they call for tougher crackdowns on the border. 

Jindal, for example, packed his speech with references to his own experience as the child of Indian immigrants and has called for streamlining the legal immigration process. Cruz and Rubio, both born to Cuban immigrants, have also supported expanding legal immigration.

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"I’m an advocate for a high wall and a broad gate,” Jindal told msnbc after his speech, adding that the country currently “make[s] it too hard for people who want to come here legally and play by the rules.”

Conservative advocacy group Citizens United has held candidate showcases in Iowa and New Hampshire as well, each drawing in a similar array of GOP names. The events have already made an impact on the race: Walker’s standing in polls surged after he delivered a well-received speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January.

South Carolina is once again poised to play a critical role as an early primary state. Over the last several cycles, its conservative-leaning GOP electorate has offered a juicy opportunity for an insurgent candidate to build momentum — like Newt Gingrich, the 2012 primary winner in the state — or for a front-runner to decisively knock out their upstart rivals, like eventual nominees John McCain in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2000. 

Early polling of Republican voters in the state finds the race wide open, with no one cracking even 20% — setting up what’s expected to be a hotly contested fight between a range of candidates.

One potential 2016er who could play an outsized role compared to his national position in the race is native son Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is weighing a run. Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee finished a close second in the state in 2008 and performed well in southern races that year and with evangelical voters, who are a major force in South Carolina. Huckabee, who announced his campaign in Hope, Arkansas, this week, held a campaign event in South Carolina on Friday morning, but missed the Greenville summit. Graham, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and undeclared former Florida governor Jeb Bush also did not attend.