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Trio of GOP candidates vie for conservatives' affection

A trio of leading Republican presidential contenders made their pitches to hundreds of social conservatives on Monday night.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz speaks at the Americans for Prosperity Road to Reform event on Aug. 14, 2015, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by John Locher/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz speaks at the Americans for Prosperity Road to Reform event on Aug. 14, 2015, in Las Vegas, Nev.

ANDERSON, South Carolina — A trio of leading Republican presidential contenders made their pitches to hundreds of social conservatives at Rep. Jeff Duncan’s Faith and Freedom BBQ fundraiser Monday night, each one avoiding direct jabs at the other but seeking to draw a contrast from the pack.

For Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, his primary pitch was his experience as governor, during which he said he defunded Planned Parenthood, fought off thousands of pro-union protesters and achieved conservative reforms in a blue-leaning state. He also leaned heavily on foreign policy, and in a new line of attack took aim at China, noting he issued a release today calling President Obama to cancel a visit from Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

“We need to speak out against China’s advances in international waters, go back at their cyberattacks and once and for all speak out about their abysmal human rights record, which includes the persecution of Christians,” he said.

WATCH: A bad August for Scott Walker

For retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the pitch was his outsider status — as the only non-politician on the stage, Carson told the crowd he had planned to enjoy retirement but felt compelled to run by God, because “we have to get people who get things done, not just talk about them.”

He also said he’ll focus on economic issues to help Americans understand how damaging the policies of the Democrats can be.

“My goal is to make sure that every American understands the fiscal gap, understands our financial condition, so that they can analyze accurately, when somebody like Bernie Sanders comes along and talks about what he’s gonna do, or Hillary Clinton comes along and says everybody gets free education — we know that all they're doing is accelerating the financial collapse of our nation and destroying the future for our children,” he said.

Carson spent the day Monday and part of Sunday touring the all-important first-in-the-South primary state, and became the fourth candidate to file his nominating papers to be added to the ballot. He also made headlines Monday for an op-ed he wrote in USA Today calling the “anger” expressed by #BlackLivesMatter protesters towards Sanders and other Democratic candidates at their recent campaign events “misdirected.”

"The notion that some lives might matter less than others is meant to enrage. That anger is distracting us from what matters most. We're right to be angry, but we have to stay smart," Carson, the only African-American candidate for president, wrote.

RELATED: Ben Carson calls #BlackLivesMatter a distraction

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz spoke last and received the warmest reception from the estimated 1,700 event attendees — his lawn-signs peppered the drive up to the Anderson Civic Center, where the event was held, and a number of his youngest fans — 10 years-old or younger — dotted the crowd, waving signs after each of his applause lines.

The senator pitched himself as the only “consistent conservative” with a grassroots following who will do exactly what he promised, and said that South Carolina was key this cycle because it’s role is “to ensure that the Republican nominee is a real and consistent conservative.”

“[T]he Democratic field consists of a wild-eyed Socialist with ideas that are dangerous for America and the world, and Bernie Sanders.”'

“And that's the only way you win -- every time we nominate a campaign conservative who hasn't walked the walk we lose over and over and over again,” he said.

He warmed up the crowd with a series of jokes at the expense of his Democratic opponents — Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Obama.

Cruz unleashed a jab at Sanders, who describes himself as a socialist, that also targeted Clinton, joking that “the Democratic field consists of a wild-eyed Socialist with ideas that are dangerous for America and the world, and Bernie Sanders.”

He also knocked Clinton on the controversy surrounding her use of a private email server and personal account to conduct official business during her time as secretary of State. Clinton’s attorney confirmed last week that after turning over thousands of emails to a congressional panel for review, she deleted them all from the server, prompting Cruz to joke that the reason Democrats have struggled to schedule their primary debates is due to Clinton’s server issues.

RELATED: Ted Cruz enlists pastors for all-out assault on Planned Parenthood

“It’s not widely known, but the Democrats had planned to have an early debate -- the problem was the debate invitation was emailed to Hillary,” he said.

And he doubled down on controversial comments he made last week that if the deal halting Iran’s nuclear program passes Congress, “it will make the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism.” Obama called the comments and other critiques from Republicans “outrageous attacks,” and Cruz joked that Obama had taken a break from a game of golf to respond to him. 

“President Obama got very very upset that I said that. He interrupted his busy world travels — in between the eighth and ninth holes — to attack me directly,” he said.

While the other two candidates offered vague outlines for the priorities and policies they’d implement as president — Walker pledged to repeal Obamacare and return control over health care and education to the states — Cruz laid out the clearest checklist of priorities, ticking off five things he’d accomplish on day one in the Oval Office if elected:

  1. Rescind “every single illegal and unconstitutional executive order” signed by President Obama;
  2. Open up a Department of Justice investigation into Planned Parenthood, and prosecute if any criminal actions were taken;
  3. “Instruct the Department of Justice, the IRS and every other agency that the persecution of religious liberty ends today” and allow service-members to practice their faith freely;
  4. “Rip up the catastrophic nuclear deal” with Iran; and
  5. Begin the process of moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

He joked that such a whirlwind of activity, which he predicted would continue through two terms of a Cruz presidency, would drive journalists insane.

“There are 365 days in a year, four years in a presidential term, and four years in a second term -- by the end of eight years, there are gonna be an awful lot of newspaper reporters and editors and journalists who've checked themselves into therapy,” he said.

RELATED: Cruz warns of 'war on faith' at religious freedom rally

Cruz told the crowd that the difference between himself and the other candidates is that “when I tell you I’m gonna do something, I do exactly what I said I would do.” But Walker made his effectiveness a central point in his pitch to voters as well, calling himself the only candidate who’s been “a fighter and a winner.”

“I would say to you tonight there is only one candidate who has done both — only one candidate who has fought the good fight and won those fights, and did it without compromising common-sense conservative principles,” Walker said.

The crowd enjoyed baked beans, coleslaw and pulled pork, with two kinds of barbecue sauce — sweet, and Carolina-style vinegar-based. They sipped sweet tea as they watched each candidate take the stage, and hundreds arrived early to shake hands with Carson and Walker as they milled about the crowd before the event began.