GOP hopefuls try to stand out

Ted Cruz supporter Velvet Cowan, of Mt. Airy, N.C. (left), waits in line before the Freedom Summit on Saturday in Greenville.

GREENVILLE — Saturday marked South Carolina’s biggest gathering of Republicans on the White House trail this year. And while Jeb Bush and Sen. Lindsey Graham didn’t attend the Freedom Summit, those who did played right to the GOP base.

“My wife and I have 13 children — that’s why we’re conservatives,” retired insurance executive Louis Neiger of Newberry said in describing why he planned to spend nine hours listening to a dozen hopefuls.

Little news was broken during the marathon day, but that wasn’t the point. The goal was to give the leading figures in the GOP race — including Scott Walker, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — the opportunity to deliver their 15-minute canned stump speeches to a live audience. It meant mostly bad-mouthing President Obama, calling for greater tax relief in Washington, talking up their humble upbringings and standing up to the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Saturday’s speakers’ list also included Donald Trump, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, John Bolton, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.

Bush, the former Florida governor, was giving the commencement speech at Liberty University in Virginia, though many conservatives at Saturday’s event said he wasn’t missed.

Graham, who is expected to formally declare his own bid June 1, took the weekend off for a family commitment, his office said.

Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul did not attend either.

Graham’s absence wasn’t considered a lost opportunity by some of the more than 2,000 Republicans here. “I don’t know that I’m against him — I’m just not for him,” said Kayla Culbertson of Easley. She added, “You know I’m not the only one.”

Some conservatives see Graham and Bush as too willing to compromise on immigration reform.

For the candidates who appeared, the reception was enthusiastic as most of the crowd at the Peace Center auditorium came from the Upstate, with many tea party and evangelical voters mixed in.

Florida Sen. Rubio’s appearance was his first in South Carolina since formally announcing his White House campaign. His speech, though, was among the shorter of those given, lasting under 10 minutes.

Rubio couched the 2016 race in terms of moving the country forward while pointing to a Washington that’s out-of-touch with a changing world and failing to make the needed course shift.

“Why is this happening to the greatest nation on Earth?” he asked. “At it’s core the reason is this: Because the economy and the world all around us is undergoing historic and dramatic changes but we are led by too many people who are trapped in the past by ideas that no longer work.”

Texas Sen. Cruz was much lighter in his delivery. “So, is this the ‘Ready for Hillary’ rally?” he joked to some boos.

Cruz quickly turned to his stump platform that includes abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and repealing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which he called a jobs killer.

Both Cruz and Rubio are officially in the race. So is Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, and Carson, a retired neurosurgeon.

Carson targeted what he described as the growing war on religious liberty, particularly censorship of the word “God” even though it can be found in speeches, writings and simple matters of American faith.

“It’s on our money, but we aren’t supposed to talk about it,” he said. “In medicine, we call that schizophrenia,” he said to claps.

Fiorina was among the most vocal of the candidates in speaking against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. “Unlike Hillary Clinton, I’m not afraid to answer questions about my track record,” she said.

Trump, the New York real estate mogul, spoke the longest and hinted that his campaign announcement is coming soon, probably in late June. He foreshadowed that he would play up his outside-of-Washington credentials by saying that supporting career politicians represents more of the same.

“Sadly, politicians are all talk and not action,” he said of his criticism of government. “They aren’t going to get you to the Promised Land.”

Walker, the Wisconsin governor, played up his in-office credentials that includes tightening the state budget, taking on public unions and winning in a state that previously has leaned Democratic.

His record was enough to secure the support of Greenville voter Rod Christian.

“What he says here is meaningless,” Christian said of the stump format. “It’s what he’s already done as governor” in Wisconsin, that has solidified his vote.

One influential Republican who spoke Saturday told the crowd that their pick for the primary should be based on something more than who spends the most money or who collects the most big-name endorsements.

Former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, now of the Heritage Foundation, said conservatives should go with who is the most committed to conservative principles in 2016.

“It’s not about giving a good speech, it’s about good ideas,” he said.

This was third installment of the Freedom Summit. Earlier versions took place in Iowa and New Hampshire. South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary is likely to be held Feb. 20, 2016, giving voters an 11-day window to evaluate the candidates after the New Hampshire primary.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.