Texas Sen. Ted Cruz adeptly sidestepped questions about how he'd fare among conservative Republicans in a South Carolina presidential primary. But he did say another Democrat in the White House would spell doom and gloom.
"Eight more years of this, I don't know it's something this country comes back from," he said.
Cruz, widely seen as the conservative face of last year's government shutdown over funding what Republicans call "Obamacare," spent Tax Day talking to free enterprise advocates at The Citadel.
"Liberty is under assault like never before," he told the crowd. "It seems this president is going down the Bill of Rights trying to violate them, one at a time."
The high rhetoric comes as signs point to a presidential run for Cruz in 2016. Even fellow Senate Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina - an opponent of the shutdown strategy - thinks so.
"His challenge is like everybody's challenge: can you beat Hillary?" said Graham, pointing to the coalitions needed to win on a national scale.
Cruz was the keynote speaker at the Free Enterprise Foundation Awards Dinner where he was introduced by Graham to a crowd of about 150 people.
Cruz's tone was both anti-Obama and anti-Washington. "If we make D.C. listen, then we can get back to the free market principles," he said, before quoting Ronald Reagan's "shining city on a hill" motto that the country should follow.
Cruz, a first-term senator, has historically contended the 16-day partial shutdown of the government last October was a success because it raised the debate, even as a compromise ended the stalemate and the Affordable Care Act was ultimately funded. A group of House Republicans also gave him their support, including some from South Carolina's delegation.
Before his speech, Cruz told reporters he did not intend to take sides in Graham's June 10 primary against six other Republicans, even as some of those challengers have invoked Cruz's name for standing up to Washington and what they see as Graham's willingness to work with Democrats.
"I'm leaving that to the grass roots," Cruz said about his decision to stay out. "I trust the grass roots."
Graham differed with Cruz and others over the shutdown strategy but termed their differences "a tactical dispute" toward the same end goal. "Everybody likes a fighter," Graham said of Cruz. "He's definitely a fighter."
Some Republicans thought the fact Graham and Cruz were together Tuesday was a story by itself.
This was Cruz's third visit to South Carolina in recent times but the first of note in Charleston. He also becomes the third potential presidential hopeful to speak at the Citadel in recent months, joining Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Governors Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry and Scott Walker have also made visits to the state as well, helping illustrate the importance of GOP voters here.
If he does opt to run for president, political watchers say Cruz has the potential to do well in collecting support from South Carolina conservatives who are upset at the GOP middle or who don't find the conventional establishment representing their views.
"The voters who were not 'Mitt Romney' voters in 2012 - they are definitely receptive to Ted Cruz and his message," said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon. "They are the folks who are not thrilled by the mainstream of the Republican Party."
Huffmon added it's clear Cruz is laying the groundwork in South Carolina for a presidential run by talking to groups of people who are "fishing around" for someone to latch onto ahead of the pack.
"This is the first real test of the Southern base of the Republican Party," said Huffmon, referring to the state's holding as the first-in-the-South GOP presidential contest likely to be scheduled for the second or third Saturday of February 2016.
College of Charleston political scientist Jordan Ragusa added, however, that Cruz's weakness may be he's too far to the right to go beyond a GOP primary.
"Typically when parties lose an election, they go to the middle," he said, pointing to the two recent GOP defeats.
Democrats did not let the Cruz visit go without a response.
"We welcome 'Crazy Cruz' to Charleston," said Brady Quirk-Garvan, chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party. "As one of the lead champions for shutting the government down last year it gives us the chance to highlight the difference between strong leaders like Vincent Sheheen and radicals like Ted Cruz and Nikki Haley who are more interested in grandstanding and getting on national TV than helping solve the problems that face in our state."
Republicans, meanwhile, who were at the gathering said they liked Cruz's message but said it's way too early to start taking sides for 2016.
"I'm not thinking about the presidential election until November is over," said former Charleston County Party chairwoman Lin Bennett, referring to this year's governor's race.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551
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