In many ways, the speech by Cruz, who has been criticized for votes on the military in the Senate, was meant to counter the more hawkish policies of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has been touting military support here. Cruz has sought to position his foreign policy somewhere between that of Rubio and libertarians who have a more anti-interventionist bent.
Speaking aboard the USS Yorktown, a World War II-era aircraft carrier now serving as a museum, Cruz called for an increase in active-duty military troops and a more robust armed forces, pledging to return a "combat ethos" to the fighting forces. But, he said, that should be done without a large increase in military spending and unnecessary foreign adventures and interventions.
"We will scale back on the bloated bureaucracy and social experiments, and we will invest in our military with a simple goal: more tooth, less tail," Cruz said. He wants to put the number of active duty forces at 1.4 million from about 1.3 million.
The senator assailed Obama's handling of the armed forces, claiming the president's policies have undermined national security and strengthened the United States' enemies.
"His shrinking of America’s strength hasn’t inspired our enemies to imitate our pacifism; it has encouraged their aggressive behavior," Cruz said, adding that Obama "eagerly negotiates with terrorists and makes concessions to our enemies. As a result, the United States military has fallen to the bottom of President Obama’s priority list."
Cruz, as he often does on the campaign trail, tied Obama to Hillary Clinton, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"If there is a silver lining in the Obama-Clinton foreign policy debacle it is that now we know what a world without America would start to look like: far more dangerous and beholden to terrorists and criminal regimes," he said.
Later in the day in Columbia, S.C., Cruz said Obama's approach to the Islamic State is not working.
"When it comes to ISIS, enough with the patty-cake," he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. "Enough with the mind-numbing political correctness. We have a president who with the fealty of a zealot, refuses to say the words radical Islamic terrorism. And sadly he’s not alone," Cruz said, stating the Democratic Party won't.
Cruz also swiped at Donald Trump, stating that the solution to fighting enemies like the Islamic State is "not to tweet," but to "unleash the holy wrath" of the United States.
While speaking in Mount Pleasant, the senator has said the military shouldn't be a "cauldron for social experiments," including allowing transgendered soldiers to serve. Cruz said Tuesday that he would review a request by the Marine Corps to be exempt from military policy allowing women to serve in combat roles and would not allow women to register for the draft, should one be reinstated.
"Combat is death, honor and chaos," Cruz said. "The last thing any commander should need to worry about is the grades he is getting from some plush-bottomed Pentagon bureaucrat for political correctness or social experiments — or providing gluten-free MREs."
In Tuesday's speech, as well as a foreign policy address in December, Cruz is seeking to draw a clear line between himself and Rubio, whose foreign policy platform is much more interventionist.
"We will not go picking fights around the globe," Cruz said here. The purpose of a rebuilt military is not "to intervene in every conflict" and "engage in protracted exercises in nation building," Cruz said, but to "defend and advance" U.S. interests.
Cruz is attempting to pick up supporters of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who dropped out of the race earlier this month. Paul's supporters skew more libertarian and are wary of military adventurism.
While Cruz has said he wants to rein in military spending, he warned: "If you think it’s too expensive to defend this nation, try not defending it."
Cruz had once said there should be no boots on the ground to fight the Islamic State; he has now said some should be sent if necessary and that the United States should rely on overwhelming air power to "carpet bomb" it into oblivion.
Rubio spokesman Joe Pounder criticized Cruz on this and other stances, including votes in the Senate.
"Throughout this campaign, Cruz has shown himself to be weak on national security and supporting the military," Pounder said in a statement. "Senator Cruz is the only candidate in this race who has consistently sided against our military and intelligence professionals and whose foreign policy vision changes with his poll numbers."
Greg Jaffe contributed reporting.