Columbia, S.C. –– Ted Cruz must be racking up the frequent-flier miles. On Friday, he leapfrogged from the NRA’s annual meeting in Houston, Texas, to a South Carolina banquet that has become a requisite stop for anyone interested in running a national race. The Texas freshman might not be running for president yet, but when he does, the Palmetto State is ready. Tonight was his unofficial coming-out party, as he made his debut at South Carolina’s Silver Elephant Banquet, a rite of passage for would-be Republican presidential contenders. Cruz’s appearance there will do nothing to tone down the chatter about his presidential ambitions.
A South Carolina insider tells me that Cruz accepted the banquet invitation almost immediately, and for good reason. The dinner is a conservative institution in the Palmetto State, ever since Ronald Reagan delivered the first Silver Elephant Banquet address in 1967 to an audience of a few hundred people. Today, several thousand will tell you they were there — it’s part of the state’s Republican lore. Both Bushes, John McCain, and Bob Dole have all been headliners. And in 2000, seven primary contenders convened at the dinner for a debate. So many people wanted to attend that they had to move from the original Columbia location to an old Lowe’s warehouse in West Columbia.
In short, Ted Cruz just joined a short list of national conservative leaders who have all made the pilgrimage to South Carolina to court the state’s Republican kingmakers. And the consensus seems to be that he did just fine. Cruz’s speech was a marriage of academic debate-style organization and homage to South Carolinian culture. And it showed restraint – one South Carolina operative told me that Cruz’s staffers initially considered including a jab at the Gang of Eight immigration proposal. That bit got excised, and probably for the best, since Cruz’s speech was preceded by Gang of Eight member Lindsey Graham. Tonight was about making friends, and the Texas senator will have plenty of other chances to speak his mind.
That’s not to say the speech was an exercise in self-censorship. Cruz addressed a room full of folks noshing on barbecue and collard greens and sporting sundresses and Breton red pants, and he knew how to play to the crowd.
“So Vice President Joe Biden’s in town,” Cruz said, referring to a Democratic dinner being held the same day. “The great thing is, you don’t even need a punchline. You just say that and people laugh.” The audience did.
The senator also took a jab at one of the president’s recent remarks in Mexico, which suggested that that country’s drug-cartel violence was partly the result of American guns. The Texan went after Fast and Furious instead, and the crowd was pleased. But he didn’t just target Democrats; Cruz criticized Washington Republican leaders as well, while praising retired senator and now Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint’s involvement in Republican primaries.
“Every one of those races, the graybeards had decided someone else should win,” he said.
The structure of Cruz’s speech was reminiscent of a competitive-debate speech. He stuck to a strict outline, addressing what he called the “four principles of the American spirit”: courage, freedom, growth, and opportunity. It might not have been the most groundbreaking list, but the audience seemed to like it. As he moved from point to point, he went back and forth across the stage, rarely idling behind the podium.
Cruz also touted his recent threat to filibuster any new gun legislation, and his support for Rand Paul’s filibuster of CIA-director nominee John Brennan. While I suspect this has been noted previously, it may bear repeating: Ted Cruz isn’t shy about talking himself up. Undue modesty is not one of his flaws.
And the South Carolina audience didn’t seem to mind. The speech was punctuated with applause, and ended with a standing ovation.
So tonight was Cruz’s chance to chat up top South Carolina consultants and pose for pictures with activists. The next presidential election is a long way away, but Cruz is wasting no time developing a national network. And, at least in South Carolina, he seems to be off to a good start.