COLUMBIA, S.C. -- He has spent less than six months in the U.S. Senate, but Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) fueled speculation about his broader national political ambitions Friday night with a coveted speaking role at a state Republican Party dinner in the early primary state of South Carolina.

Then-U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) greeted supporters at a Tea Party Express rally in Austin on May 6, 2012. (AP/Austin American-Statesman)

In a speech designed to rally the state party's most faithful activists, Cruz sharply criticized the Obama administration for "pushing an agenda aggressively to come after our Constitutional right to keep and bear arms."

He thanked the state's conservative voters for helping to stop the Senate from passing any new restrictions despite widespread support for some of the proposals.

"The men and women in this room began speaking up, began calling Washington, going online, going on Facebook, going on Twitter, and said, 'Go after the violent criminals, go after them with a ton of bricks, but protect the constitutional rights of Americans,'" he said.

Speaking with a wireless microphone and pacing the stage like a televangelist, Cruz urged Republicans not to become complacent in the aftermath of the party's electoral losses last year.

"Change happens quickly," he said, recalling that Democrats had warned of a "permanent Republican majority" in 2005, shortly before winning control of Congress and the election of President Obama.

"In 2006, we lost Congress, 2008 Barack Obama got elected, 2009 Obamacare passes, and here we are today," he said. He later declared: "I am convinced with your help that we're going to take back the U.S. Senate in 2014."

As Cruz concluded, South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly reminded the senator that former president Ronald Reagan once spoke at the party’s annual fundraising event, known as the Silver Elephant Dinner.

“Not to put any pressure on you, but we have high expectations and we do expect you back in the state,” Connelly told Cruz.

The speech Friday night was Cruz's second high-profile appearance of the day. Earlier Friday in Houston at the annual convention of the National Rifle Association, Cruz challenged Vice President Biden to an hour-long debate on violence and gun-control.

The buzz surrounding Cruz, 42, comes as friends told the conservative National Review magazine this week that he's mulling a possible presidential bid at the behest of enthusiastic supporters. A Cruz campaign might bump against the presumed presidential
ambitions of other young conservative lawmakers, including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is scheduled to visit the state in June.

Cruz's appearance coincided with a tribute to former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who resigned last December to assume control of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

DeMint, who was an early backer of Cruz's Senate campaign, called the senator "one of the strongest Republicans in the country right now. I've been in 25 cities in the last few months, all I have to do is mention Ted Cruz's name, and they stand up and cheer. They're hungry for someone who's not afraid, willing to stand up and trying to change the status quo."

While Republicans hosted Cruz and feted DeMint, South Carolina Democrats dined just a few blocks away with Biden and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), another young Latino politician also mentioned as a future national leader. State law requires the two political parties to hold their annual conventions in May.

The appearances by Biden and Cruz earned a considerable amount of attention from the national political press corps, including the public access cable network C-SPAN, which used the speeches to launch its "Road to the White House 2016" series - the
earliest it has ever done so before a presidential contest.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost