Of the three presidential candidates who spoke at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference in Washington, D.C., Thursday, there was no question whom the audience was waiting for.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz walked on and offstage to raucous applause. The 300 or so lunching faithful erupted into cheers even before his introduction was complete.
The first-term senator returned the favor, telling this slice of the Republican Party what they wanted to hear — and in the process, distinguished his tone from that of the other GOP hopefuls who appeared with him.
“We could talk about jobs and the economy,” Cruz said, “but I want to talk about an issue that’s going to be front and center in 2016. And that is religious liberty.”
He began his speech with a moment of silence for the victims of Wednesday night’s shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., before telling the crowd Thursday was “a new morning.”
Of all the GOP hopefuls, Cruz used the most religious rhetoric and took the most shots at President Barack Obama, underscoring his appeal with the evangelical wing of the Republican Party.
The audience heard two other presidential hopefuls before Cruz came on, but with each candidate, the tone grew increasingly more religious and socially conservative. The size of the standing ovations grew progressively larger, too.
Aside from his religiously inspired refrain “If I am blessed with the opportunity to be president of the United States ...” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's message wasn't as on-point to the faithful as Cruz's was. Rubio made the economy his central message, invoking his immigrant parents and the better lives they made for themselves through hard work in America.
His father, he told the audience, “worked banquets like this,” while his mother “was a maid at a hotel like this.” His was an up-from-the-bootstraps narrative, but he also delivered a message about an economic overhaul, telling the crowd they had to make the economy work for the hotel staff who would “pick up for us after we leave here.”
Some of his drier economic declarations — “We will save Social Security and Medicare!” — went over flat. He did better taking a shot at liberal-arts majors who earn more money and respect than vocational workers.
Even if the audience wasn’t stirred by his economic message, multiple members of the crowd credited him for the way he handled two protesters who barged into the room to challenge his position on immigration.
Rubio picked up right where he left off, using the interruption to highlight what he called America’s exceptional tolerance for freedom of speech.
The last quarter of Rubio’s address got at what the crowd was there for. “The government is not meant to replace moms and dads,” he said, “It is meant to empower them.”
Whereas Rubio took a while to launch into what he called the “erosion of our culture and values,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul wasted no time invoking the “faith” in Faith and Freedom.
He stepped around the side of the podium when he first spoke, saying, “Our rights come naturally from God,” and attributed child poverty to kids not having married parents. The importance of two-parent families was a punchline all of Thursday’s speakers relied on.
“The reason I’m running for president is not to gain power,” Paul said. It’s to “take power away from government and give it back to the people.” He drew applause for saying that his fellow lawmakers’ time in Washington should be limited, but ironically, he didn’t mention his fight back in Kentucky to appear on the ballot for both Senate and president.
As he’s done elsewhere, Paul spoke about expanding the party’s tent, saying he’d visited Howard University and Ferguson, Mo., in the past year to determine “what parts of our message might apply to be those who haven’t been listening to it.”
As attendees prepared to board buses headed for "Lobby Day" at the Capitol, it was clear they got what they came for in Cruz, but the other two senators had made an impression. “It seemed like Ted Cruz was the rock star,” said Karen Furlong, who attended the conference from Philadelphia. “But I think I was most impressed by Marco Rubio."
“All three candidates have their own message,” Colorado State Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt said. But, he added, “They all seemed to get it when it comes to religious freedom.”
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