After pillorying each other during the Republican presidential debate two days earlier, front-runners Donald J. Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz toned down the personal attacks and instead joined in criticizing the U.S. prisoner swap with Iran as they sought to highlight their conservative credentials in separate appearances Saturday at a tea party convention in South Carolina.
The two candidates, battling each other at the top of the crowded field in the race to win the Iowa caucuses in two weeks, said that they were happy to see the release of four Americans, but that the U.S. had come up short in the deal. Cruz said none of the four had done anything wrong, highlighting in particular Saeed Abedini, a pastor from Boise, Idaho, while adding that the seven Iranians that the U.S. set free had been jailed for or facing charges of violating sanctions.
"There is a false moral equivalence in a deal like this," Cruz said. "Saeed was in prison for the crime of preaching the gospel. He shouldn't have been there." He added that neither should have the others -- Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian; Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran, of Flint, Mich.; and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, whose incarceration had not been previously reported.
The prisoner swap was made public shortly before it was announced that Iran had met conditions set forth as part of the landmark nuclear deal that will also lift international financial sanctions that had strangled the Iranian economy. Trump, who like many others in the GOP who have called for a tougher hand in dealing with Iran, blamed the Obama administration for not negotiating the release of the Americans much earlier. Rezaian, for example, had been detained since July 2014.
"It's horrible, it should have happened years before," Trump said.
In the latest GOP debate Thursday in North Charleston, S.C., Trump and Cruz dominated the evening with volleys of taunts and sharp accusations at each other. Trump questioned Cruz's eligibility to be president because of his Canadian birth to an American mother, and the Texas lawmaker cast doubts about the New York billionaire's conservative convictions.
At the convention Saturday in Myrtle Beach, the two men presented a contrast in style and personalities even as both candidates dropped names such as Newt Gingrich and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to appeal to tea party members.
Cruz, speaking first, didn't name Trump or any other rival GOP candidate. But pacing on a platform in front of an image of the American flag, the Constitution and the Liberty Bell, Cruz called the audience to consider what candidates actually did, not what they have said on the campaign trail.
And he laid out issues that Cruz said attested to the validity of his conservative stripes, among them how he fought hard against the Obama administration's gun-control proposal after the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.; funding for Planned Parenthood and efforts to erode the sanctity of marriage; and Obama's economic stimulus package passed during the Great Recession.
"You can't be tea party and have supported Obama's stimulus," Cruz said, noting that it was such "corporate welfare" government programs that led to the tea party movement. "No bailouts for any bank. Period. No subsidies, no mandates. Stop picking winners and losers."
Trump, whose lead in the polls among GOP candidates has widened recently, appeared on the stage about an hour later. Dressed in a dark suit with a red striped tie as opposed to Cruz's jeans and boots, Trump stood behind the dais and for the next 45 minutes spun out an array of anecdotes and pronouncements in his customary shoot-from-the-hip style.
The hotel and real estate developer basked in his top poll standing, which he has had since last summer, and reiterated his most controversial platforms, including his proposal to build a 1,000-mile wall across the Mexican border to stop illegal immigration and keep out criminal elements. Trump also repeated his call for restrictive measures against allowing Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., warning, "This could be the ultimate Trojan horse."
Trump took jabs mainly at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, saying that "he had lost another debate" Thursday and taunting Bush and his supporters for spending tens of millions of dollars on his bid, only to be far behind in polls. Trump took one brief shot at Cruz for failing to report bank loans that helped fund his Senate campaign, just before he walked off the stage to cheers and the blaring of "Eye of the Tiger."