GREENVILLE, S.C. – Ted Cruz bluntly remarked that a police officer who killed two gunmen who were likely inspired by the Islamic State helped them to “meet their virgins.” Bobby Jindal quipped that gun control means “hitting your target.” Marco Rubio quoted the violent action film “Taken” to describe his plan for defeating radical Islam.
One after another, Republicans with an eye on running for president used intensely strong language to describe their hard-line positions at a conservative summit here on Saturday. Although national security and foreign relations have long been a dominant issue at forums like this, many candidates seem to have greatly intensified their rhetoric as they angle to be seen as the staunchest enforcer and fiercest protector of the country.
The positioning comes amid increased concern about terrorism and a raging debate about the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which many Republicans say is endangering the security of U.S. allies.
In speeches at the South Carolina Freedom Summit, presidential candidates and likely contenders took turns unveiling their hawkish positions and bashing President Obama's foreign policies. Several zeroed in on a shooting in Garland, Tex., this week -- including Cruz, a U.S. senator from the state who is running for president.
Cruz praised the Garland police officer who shot and killed two gunmen who on Sunday opened fire outside a conference center that was hosting a cartooning contest and exhibit depicting the prophet Muhammad, which is forbidden in Islam. The men were likely inspired by the Islamic State, U.S. officials say.
"We saw the ugly face of Islamic terrorism in my home state of Texas, in Garland where two jihadists came to commit murder. Thankfully one police officer helped them meet their virgins," Cruz said, referring to a belief that such martyrs are greeted in heaven by dozens of virgins.
Jindal, the governor of Louisiana who is thinking about running for president, echoed Cruz and said he was "thankful that those two terrorists were sent to their afterlife." He also remarked that the men were foolish to carry out an attack in a Southern state where many people own guns and know how to use them.
"In our states, we think of gun control -- we think that means hitting your target," Jindal said. He received a thunderous applause.
Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida who is running for president, summed up his strategy for fighting radical Islamists with a quote from a Hollywood blockbuster.
"When people ask what our strategy should be on global jihadists and terrorists, I refer them to the movie, 'Taken,'" Rubio said. "Have you seen the movie 'Taken'? Liam Neeson, he has a line -- this is what our strategy should be: We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you."
Rubio tried last week to burnish his hawkish foreign policy credentials by toughening a bill designed to give Congress oversight of the tentative deal the Obama administration and other nations have reached with Iran to prevent them from building a nuclear weapon in exchange for easing crippling economic sanctions.
The Republicans addressing the crowd bashed the deal and warned that it endangers Israel. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is moving closer to officially entering the presidential sweepstakes, received a standing ovation when he said: "We need a president who is going to back away from that deal In Iran."
Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard who is also running for president, has said several times on the campaign trail that one of the first things she would do in the White House is to stop negotiations with Iran until officials agree to inspections. But on Saturday afternoon she breathlessly fired off the loaded message that she would want to send to the country: "Whatever the circumstances were, the circumstances have changed now, and until and unless you submit to full and unfettered inspections of every single nuclear facility in your country we will exact and enact the most crushing sanctions we can."
Fiorina added, "We have a lot to do with how easy or how hard it is to move money around the global financial system -- and I would ensure that it was very, very hard."
The remarks played well among the older, mostly white crowd, which was eager to hear the speakers explain why they are tough on national security and well-versed on foreign policy matters. One man sold buttons referring to the deadly 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya. Another wore a shirt that said "I'd rather be waterboarding."
"I think they've declared war on us. We need to be prepared to take it overseas if we have to," said Steve Lefevre, 74, of the Greenville area, speaking of Islamic extremists.
Here in South Carolina, national security matters resonate more than they do in many other parts of the country, due to the number of military bases and the substantial veteran population. Political strategists say the winner of the "First in the South" primary will likely be someone touting an aggressive national security platform.
One presidential candidate who was not in attendance was Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who critics charge has been too reluctant to intervene in overseas conflicts. Paul was in San Francisco opening an office there.
Polls show a wide-open Republican race in South Carolina, where many voters are just getting to know the candidates. When Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) asked the audience how many of then had made up their minds, only a few raised their hands.
The competitiveness has drawn interest from many Republicans, including some who have flirted with running in the past only to decline after ginning up attention. The prime example: Donald Trump, the celebrity real estate entrepreneur who, like the the Republicans who spoke before him, used pointed language.
Trump went after Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who left his patrol base in Afghanistan in 2009, was captured by the Taliban and was held for five years until the United States bartered for his release.
"I call our president the five-to-one president," Trump said of Obama. "We got Bergdahl; they get five leaders, killers that want to kill us all. And they're all back on the battlefield, by the way, and we got this piece of garbage named Bergdahl, who years ago we would have shot for treason."