Sharon Farris left South Carolina's annual "Faith & Freedom BBQ" Monday night with her blouse and purse covered with campaign stickers from at least a half-dozen Republican presidential hopefuls.
"I'm open-minded, but I'm looking for somebody with Bible-based principles," she said, explaining that means "the more conservative, the better," and not just on abortion and marriage.
Norm Bundy, a former Marine and retired businessman, said he wants a Republican nominee "who can take back America from the socialistic situation we've gotten ourselves into."
The dinner's sponsor, congressman and tea party darling Jeff Duncan, said he wants a nominee who can rise above day-to-day maneuvering to "inspire me about what you're going to do to return America to greatness."
Farris, Bundy and their congressman agreed that each of the evening's three speakers — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — passed the eye test.
That's the conundrum when 17 Republicans run for the same prize: There are relatively few policy distinctions between them and, with the exception of recent swipes at front-runner Donald Trump, nearly all of the would-be nominees direct their barbs at President Barack Obama and the Democratic candidates trying to succeed him.
Cruz admitted as much. Recalling the first GOP debates earlier this month, Cruz said, "Nobody on that stage in Cleveland stood there and said, 'I'm a squishy establishment moderate.'"
South Carolina hosts the South's first primary next February after Iowa and New Hampshire start the nomination process. Duncan's congressional district is the most conservative in the state — Mitt Romney got 64.5 percent of the presidential vote in 2012 to Obama's 33.9 percent — and is expected to provide the largest number of GOP primary votes of any South Carolina congressional district.
On Monday, Walker and Cruz paid special attention to their own religious identities and social conservative bona fides. Walker noted his father is a Baptist minister and said he had stopped earlier Monday at a nearby pregnancy center that counsels women away from abortions. "In college, long before I was in politics, I was involved in Students for Life," he said, adding an anecdote about a speech he once delivered to at the Wisconsin Right to Life dinner.
Cruz repeated his promise to investigate Planned Parenthood while ending what he describes as "religious persecution" of Christians by the U.S. government.
Carson, who has never sought public office, roused the crowd with aggressive rhetoric on Islamic State militants. He said people "who want to destroy our way of life" cannot be defeated by dropping "an occasional bomb in the desert." The U.S., he said, must "use everything available to us, economically, military, overt, covert to absolutely destroy them first."
The crowd cheered nearly as loudly when Walker hailed the constitutional right to bear arms and again when Cruz said his tax proposal — which he still has not released — would allow Congress to abolish the IRS. They roared again when Cruz promised to repeal "every word of Obamacare" and when Walker repeated his pledge to "rip up" Obama's nuclear deal with Iran "on day one."
Yet even that checklist could not please everyone. With Walker building to his conclusion, one woman yelled out several times, "What about the border?" Walker had not mentioned immigration, even in a week Trump has again dominated with his call to stop granting citizenship to children born in the U.S. if their parents are not here legally.
Duncan, in an interview earlier Monday, conceded the free-for-all nature of the race, particularly with Trump in the lead.
"Other candidates and other campaigns ought to listen to what he's saying because it seems to be resonating with the American people, and maybe they want to start incorporating that into their campaigns as well," Duncan said.
And yet, he called the idea of repealing the 14th Amendment — which guarantees citizenship to anyone born in the U.S — a "shiny object" and warned the candidates that "there are real issues out there."
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