GOP 2016 candidates look to seize momentum out of debates

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A day after the Fox News-Facebook Republican presidential primary debates, contenders for the nomination tried to capitalize on momentum Friday by firing up their base at a gathering of grassroots conservative.

At the 2015 RedState Gathering in Atlanta, a host of Republican 2016 hopefuls including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tried to build on strong performances the night before.

The gathering, named after the conservative political website, is the brainchild of WSB Radio host Erick Erickson. The three-day convention of top GOP elected officials brought a host of 2016 contenders hoping to establish themselves as favorites among the conservative base.

All three sought to stir up the base with biting speeches that used humor while showcasing their conservative principles.

“2016 is going to be a fight, a real fight, between conservatism and the progressivism that has completely dominated the Democrat Party and that is now not only undermining the character of our nation but crushing the potential of this nation,” Fiorina, whom analysts seemed to agree dominated Thursday's 5 p.m. Fox News-Facebook debate, told participants.

“In order to win [in 2016], we’re going to have a nominee who throws every punch, who will not ever pull her punches,” Fiorina said.

Both Fiorina and Christie took aim at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – an unpopular organization among many grassroots conservatives – with Christie blaming it for Republicans not properly dealing with the problem of illegal immigration.

“The reason we’re not dealing with immigration as strongly as we need to be in my opinion is because of the Chamber of Commerce crowd,” Christie said. “Because they want to employ illegal folks and they don’t want to use E-Verify.”

Fiorina asked: “What does the Chamber of Commerce do, remind me?”

Meanwhile, Rubio received big cheers for emphasizing his plan to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare, and spent much of his speech talking about solutions to the issue of student loans and the cost of higher education, arguing for more competition and innovation to break the monopoly of higher education.

“I believe before you take a loan, schools should have to tell you ‘this is how much people make when they graduate with a degree you are seeking from our school.’ And then you can decide if it’s smart to borrow $50,000 to be a Greek or Roman philosopher, because the market for those philosophers has tightened in the last 2000 years,” Rubio quipped to laughter from the audience.

The participants also had choice words for President Obama’s policies, with Christie promising to repeal his “illegal” executive actions and slamming his economic record.

“It is just disgraceful that we are sitting with a president who takes a victory lap for the worst economic growth in post-World War II history,” Christie said, while also calling for a radical simplification of the tax code.

“Imagine how many people I could fire from the IRS if you could do your taxes in 15 minutes.” Christie said.

Meanwhile Rubio took aim at Obama’s foreign policy, specifically his approaches to Iran and Israel, saying, “we have a president who is more respectful of the Ayatollah of Iran than the prime minister of Israel.”

Other candidates at the gathering included Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The lineup was due to be followed up on Saturday with appearances by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, business mogul Donald Trump and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The gathering adopted a similar tone to Thursday's debate, which was filled with lots of jabbing one-liners that resonated with the audience, and vitriol aimed at the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton. The Republicans sparred with each other plenty on Thursday, but nobody landed a KO, leaving the 17-candidate field intact heading out of the Cleveland showdown.