COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina got a taste of two very different political acts Friday night.
On one side was Vice President Joe Biden, a 35 year veteran of the Senate who showered praise on his old congressional colleagues and drew on his standard stump speech from the 2012 campaign, talking about Democrats’ commitment to the middle class and declaring that Republicans are “down on America.”
“One of the things that bothers me most about the new Republican party is how down on America they are, how down on our prospects they are, how they talk about how we’re getting clobbered, how they talk about things that have no relationship to reality, all in the name of making sure that the very few at the top do very well,” Biden said at the South Carolina Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner Friday night.
On the other side, two miles down the road, was Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a rising star in the Republican Party, less than six months into his first term as a senator who wooed the South Carolina Republicans with his talk of repealing President Obama’s healthcare plan and protecting constitutional rights.
“We should be defending the fourth and fifth amendments against an administration that recognizes no limits on its powers,” Cruz said at the South Carolina GOP’s Silver Elephant Dinner as he went through each of the constitutional rights he believes the Obama administration is threatening.
Biden and Cruz each traveled to South Carolina, known as the “First in the South” primary state, to honor leaders in their respective parties, but the visits fueled speculation about each man’s intentions for the next presidential election three years down the road from now.
The vice president acknowledged that his trip to South Carolina would create a buzz about 2016 but insisted he solely came to celebrate Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who was being honored at the evening’s fundraiser.
“I love coming down here to South Carolina…As soon as I show up in South Carolina, the Washington press corps comes out saying, ‘Is Biden getting ready?’” he said before saying he came at the request of Clyburn. “I’ve got to make clear — I would go anywhere Jim asked me to go.”
As they opined before their party faithful Friday evening, both politicians were very cognizant of the other’s presence in South Carolina. Biden referenced the Silver Elephant Dinner occurring down the road multiple times in his speech but refrained from mentioning the Texas senator by name, instead jokingly saying “I don’t want to make any news tonight.”
But Cruz was a bit more direct in his acknowledgement of Biden, who he challenged to a debate over the Second Amendment at the National Rifle Association in Houston, Texas earlier in the day.
“So Vice President Joe Biden’s in town,” Cruz said to laughs. “You know the great thing is you don’t even need a punch line? You just say that and people laugh.”
Cruz admitted Republicans are “demoralized” by the results of the 2012 election but predicted the political fortunes of the GOP will change in 2014
“Things can change quickly,” he said. “I am convinced with your help we’re going to take back the U.S. Senate in 2014.
Asked if Cruz is a viable presidential candidate, former Sen. Jim DeMint, head of the Heritage Foundation who was being honored at Friday night’s event, told reporters that voters are clamoring for a leader like Cruz but said Friday’s speech wasn’t a signal of a presidential run.
“Give the guy a break, he’s just coming to speak for us here,” DeMint told reporters. “Everybody comes to South Carolina you say they’re running for president. I can assure you he’s thinking about senate business and that’s about it right now.”
“He’s one of the strongest Republicans in the country now. I’ve been in 25 cities in the past few months, all I have to do is mention Ted Cruz’s name and people stand up and cheer,” DeMint said. “They’re hungry for someone who’s not afraid and willing to stand up, who’s trying to change the status quo.”
While he didn’t overtly express a desire to run in 2016, Cruz did link himself to the early primary state by pointing out the connection between Texas and South Carolina dating back to the Alamo, similar to a story Texas Gov. Rick Perry often referenced while in South Carolina during his presidential bid last year.
“Texas and South Carolina have a long long connection, a connection that goes back centuries…There were two native South Carolinians – William Barret Travis and James Bonham in the Alamo,” Cruz said. “That’s the tradition, that’s the history of South Carolina and Texas, and it’s a tremendous thing. So thank you for the support South Carolina has given then and now as we fight side by side for freedom.”