Scott Walker Sets Pace at South Carolina Freedom Summit

Analyzing the substance, style, and overall impact of the Republican presidential hopefuls at the South Carolina Freedom Summit.

The South Carolina Freedom Summit in 2 Minutes

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker

Style: With his rolled-up sleeves and relaxed demeanor, was utterly confident and fully in command. Projected more “Scott” than “Governor,” which is his winning formula for now. Twin pillars of family tales and his political battles in Wisconsin remain his rhetorical foundation.

Substance: Continues to see no need to offer much in the way of specific national or international programs or policies he would pursue as president.

Best moment: Sweeping argument that he brought conservative change to Democratic-leaning Wisconsin and therefore can bring it to the nation.

Worst moment: His difficulties switching to different tones in his national security section (mostly maintaining his somewhat incongruous colloquial style when talking about the topic) produced the only discordant notes in an otherwise well-honed stump speech.

Overall: Still playing at a top-tier level in front of big crowds, with manifest finger-tip feel for what his audience wants to hear. Met the challenge of being the kickoff candidate by revving up the crowd with his low-key intensity and newfound national star power. Down the road, he’ll need to show a broader range of skills and an ability to defend his record, but in Greenville, in the absence of Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Lindsey Graham at this event, Walker set the pace.

 
 

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum

Style: More energized and engaged than at some other recent cattle calls. Dressed in suit and tie as he played the national security resume card repeatedly, in a state with a history of voting for experienced leaders who emphasize protecting America from foreign threats.

Substance: Opened with an intense, crowd-pleasing foreign policy section, advocating a more aggressive military presence in the Middle East, but otherwise, kept mostly to generalities and critiques.

Best moment: Passionate advocacy of the GOP being a “pro-worker party,” reminiscent of his best moments from the 2012 campaign.

Worst moment: Accidentally used the hot-button word “comprehensive” in talking about his immigration plan, a slip for which he awkwardly apologized, breaking his momentum. 

Overall: Showed the advantages of being a repeat candidate with an understanding of the need to rev up the audience. Rather than being psyched out for being left out of most handicapping of the nomination battle, showed a fighting spirit and sense of how to play to his strengths. In a bigger, tougher field than four years ago, he gamely showed he wants to be part of the mix.

 
 

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry

Style: Often toned down his shouting, manic performance from other recent cattle calls to show off his attractive conversational side. Dropped nearly every “g” in telling the tale of his humble Paint Creek, Texas, upbringing.

Substance: Wowed with calls to secure the border, rebuild America’s defense, and strengthen the U.S. economy, but rarely veered into policy prescription.

Best moment: Sent the crowd into a frenzy with a challenge to the status quo on protecting America at home and abroad.

Worst moment: Didn’t quite nail his conceptually strong closing argument about how the party should choose a doer, not a talker, as its nominee.

Overall: Demonstrated why his rural upbringing and military background make him a strong cultural fit for South Carolina (and plenty of other places). Drove a more linear argument than he typically does. Clearly improved, but needs consistency—and to raise his performance even higher.

 
 

Businessman Donald Trump

Style: Bodacious, sure, but sort of conversational too. Read the rhythms of the crowd better and more often than he sometimes does. Typical line: “I would be the greatest jobs president ever.” 

Substance: Responded to critique that he hasn’t been specific enough in recent speeches by talking about financial retaliation via taxation against China, a Mexican-funded border wall, and a few other policy suggestions, but still has a long way to go to flesh out a platform that would define what a President Trump would do.

Best moment: “I don’t give a s--t about lobbyists” brought the house down.

Worst moment: Attack on the political media (always a winner with conservative audiences) devolved into a wandering, unwieldy disquisition on his wealth.

Overall: Echoed recent firm signals from his camp that he is dead-serious about running. Still, no matter what his performance level at cattle calls, he won’t achieve an elite reception that matches the energy in the hall until he makes it official. This could be, at the very least, interesting.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio

Style: Stayed behind the podium in suit and tie, contributing to a slightly flatter performance than he has delivered recently. Still, likable, charming, and pleasantly intense—and a crowd favorite.

Substance: Referenced his tax and entitlement reform measures without making his case for them in detail, and otherwise spoke in generalities.

Best moment: Closed strong on his core message of, well, hope and change in a way that clearly left the crowd energized.

Worst moment: The national security portion was less tight and focused than he usually delivers.

Overall: Didn’t quite meet the high bar he hurdled with ease at the recent New Hampshire cattle call. But so firmly ensconced in the upper tier that a slightly subpar performance won’t hurt him. Repeatedly used the words “American dream,” the phrase that continues to define him for many.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Style: After one of his stock anti-Hillary Clinton jokes, started personal and folksy with a story about his daughters. Toggled mostly smoothly between various tones and modes but at times seemed to leave the audience a half beat behind him after a switch.

Substance: Made the case for tax reform, constitutional rights, and a strong foreign policy but without many specifics.

Best moment: Except for a few stock red-meat lines, nothing particularly soared in an overall strong performance.

Worst moment: Let his previously powerful refrain contrasting talkers and doers regarding conservative bona fides get a little flabby and rote.

Overall: Powerful and commanding as he strolled the stage, but isn’t fully dominating the cattle calls the way some envisioned he might. Has found the good balance between a dark critique of the present and nods to optimism he will need to expand his following. But hasn’t cracked the code on breaking into the top tier with Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio—yet.

Former Ambassador John Bolton

Style: Continues to nicely adapt to the rhythms of being a political speaker (as opposed to a national security lecturer). Has learned to calibrate his Fox News-style attacks on President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, which are often stronger than the unhinged ones.

Substance: Described plenty of beefs he has with the Obama administration but continues to fail to define many policy preferences, sticking to platitudes like “restoring peace through strength.” Did call for an increase in the defense budget offset by taking domestic spending back to 2008 levels.

Best moment: Did a strong job making the case for a more assertive policy to contain Russia.

Worst moment: As he so often does, he closed in a weak, unrousing manner.

Overall: Put as much focus on Clinton as on Obama, which many other speakers surprisingly failed to do. Once again, acquitted himself well enough to be a continuing part of the process and influence the national security discussions.

Former New York Governor George Pataki

Style: For most of his talk, at his best: both colloquial and confident, with fewer of the energy-draining asides that sometimes slow him down. Showed that a low-profile guy from New York could hold the room at the end of a long day of speeches—no small thing.

Substance: Talked about tax policy, tightened lobbyist rules, applying all laws to Congress, term limits, and more.

Best moment: Reached a volume, passion, and intensity in taking on the Islamic State that he rarely demonstrates.

Worst moment: Got off to a bit of a slow start.

Overall: Forceful advocate of changing the culture of Washington, but hasn’t figured out the right way to talk about reforms that can catch on and allow him to stand out. Has put more chips on New Hampshire than South Carolina, but is clearly improving at the presidential politics game from his frequent trips to the Granite State. Something to watch: if he turns his big brain on some of his Republican rivals as the voting gets closer.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal

Style: Strolled, used his hands a lot, and landed more quips than he sometimes does (but a few times wandered too much into the corny). Less shrill than he sometimes has been of late. Still comes into these cattle calls looking too tired and slightly disheveled.

Substance: Stunningly unspecific for one of the nation’s true great policy wonks.

Best moment: “The United States didn’t create religious liberty. Religious liberty created the United States of America.” And...the...crowd...goes...wild.

Worst moment: His scolding warning that the GOP “can’t become the party of big business” is a worthy argument but he failed to lay enough groundwork and the line fell as flat as a French Quarter crepe.

Overall: Much closer to his best self (smart, likable, obviously brilliant) than what he has usually delivered on the presidential campaign trail. His advisers have long expected him to defy current expectations and get in the game; one of his best days since he began publicly pondering a run for the White House. Now, if he can keep this up...

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson

Style: Demonstrated his usual preternatural calm and inner strength in talking about his ailing mother. Conversational (veering on rambling at times) but less somnolent than he sometimes is.

Substance: Hinted at policy changes but didn’t flesh out any actual ideas.

Best moment: Talked about the need to adjust today’s policies to changing demographics in a manner both pleasingly low-key and powerful.

Worst moment: Consistent throughout.

Overall: His trademark style will continue to win him a following but limits just how many people he can reach. He is clearly enjoying life as an announced candidate but will need some moments of strength and political resilience to take his standing up a notch or two.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina

Style: Has learned to share her biographical details like a pro, with equal parts dignity and meaning (and without sounding defensive about her time at Hewlett-Packard). In tone and overall balance, perhaps tilting too much toward the negative and not enough toward happy warrior, upbeat ending notwithstanding.

Substance: Called for more sanctions on Iran, arming the Kurds, and sharing intelligence with the Jordanians, but still largely vague on her major calling card, the economy.

Best moment: Rousing attack on corporate welfare struck a surprisingly robust chord with the audience.

Worst moment: Her sloppily constructed opening jokes about Hillary Clinton wasted good raw material; they were neither clever nor particularly cutting.

Overall: Slightly off-key version of her strong stump speech, and a tad off her game after a week of racing around the country as an announced candidate. The last speaker of the group at the end of a long day for both her and the audience, she faced an uphill climb. Nothing particularly wrong with her performance but not a star turn.

Note: The overall grade is not an average of the style and substance grades, but takes into account other aspects of the announcement, such as staging and crowd reaction.  In addition, a candidate’s overall grade reflects the degree to which the candidate’s standing in the race is improved by the event and performance.

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