CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Ted Cruz mixed witty stories with fiery rallying cries about gun rights, the power of prayer and obliterating terrorism — and brought down the house at a five-candidate forum Saturday.

“If I am elected president, we will defeat radical Islamic terrorism. … We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out,” Cruz said to wild applause.

Judging from the reaction of the crowd of anti-establishment conservatives, Cruz overshadowed the other four Republican presidential candidates — Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson — who spoke at the Rising Tide Summit. The event was co-hosted by U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, a first-term Republican from Dubuque and one of the insurgent conservatives in the House’s Freedom Caucus, and the conservative group FreedomWorks.

Cruz, a Texas U.S. senator who is polling in third place in the GOP race in Iowa, led off with a joke about a little boy on the side of the road with a box advertising “free kittens — they’re Democrats.” A couple days later, the box was labeled “free kittens — they’re Republicans.” When a passer-by asked about the change, the boy said: “Well, mister, now their eyes are open.”

Then Cruz charged through fist-pumping calls for national security. He said the Second Amendment isn’t about hunting or target practice — it’s about protecting one’s home and keeping government tyranny in check.

A couple minutes later, he changed his tone and had the crowd belly-laughing with lines like: “Politics is Hollywood for ugly people. My wife says I resemble that remark.”

“He hit all the hot topic issues with heart and courage and without apology,” said Iowa caucusgoer George Hettinger, a 48-year-old microbiologist from West Des Moines. “I can only see the Cruz train pick up more steam as the race continues.”

It was the first presidential forum staged by FreedomWorks, and an estimated 2,000 people — some of whom had traveled from California, South Dakota, Minnesota and elsewhere — paid as much as $45 for floor seats at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids.


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Unlike Cruz, Paul didn’t mention terrorism or the two Islamic State supporters who massacred 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., on Wednesday. He stressed national debt, and said both parties are to blame.

Paul, a Kentucky U.S. senator, belittled GOP presidential rival Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, for his proposal to beef up the defense budget by $1 trillion over the next 10 years — and for not saying how he’d cover that expense.

“I asked Sen. Rubio — is it conservative to add a trillion dollars worth of new debt?”

“Noooooo!” the audience roared.

“Well, he says it’s for the military,” said Paul, who is attracting 3% support in the GOP race in Iowa, according to the RealClearPolitics.com rolling average.

Paul said he’s for a strong military — in fact the primary purpose of the federal government is to defend the nation. “But if you’re going to say that adding to debt is going to make us stronger, I disagree,” he said.

Earlier, Paul told reporters at a press gaggle that he’s concerned Rubio is quickly becoming the establishment candidate in the early states. And he thinks “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio” on certain matters.

Santorum, his voice in a passionate shout for most of his 16-minute speech, said he’s the only presidential contender Islamic State has “listed as an enemy.”

“Load up the bombers and bomb them back to the 7th century,” said Santorum, a former Pennsylvania U.S. senator who is struggling to gain more than 1% support in Iowa this cycle.

Santorum said he’s the only one who stands firm against “amnesty.”

“Every other person, I believe, on this stage tonight is for allowing those here illegally to stay,” Santorum said. “I do not believe they should.”

Santorum told Iowans not to let anger motivate their vote.

“Crowd sits silently,” tweeted Radio Iowa reporter O. Kay Henderson. “Zero response.”

Carson, who was panned for staring at his notes during a recent Jewish presidential forum in Washington, D.C., and for mispronouncing name of the militant Palestinian group Hamas as “hummus,” used no note cards and no teleprompters in Iowa.

He said he has been advised to be more forceful when speaking.

“I’ve got to tell you something — that scares children,” he said, to laughs from the audience. “As a pediatric neurosurgeon, I didn’t want my patients to be afraid.”

Carson said he wasn’t always like that — he flew off the handle and had “horrible things happen because of that temper.” But God did a good job of fixing the problem, he said.

Carson touched on the Middle East, but also brought up the U.S. electric grid and space exploration and said “we cannot afford to get behind in these things.”

Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, said: “We must defeat ISIS. It is delusional, ladies and gentleman, as a terrorist attack is ongoing for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to be tweeting about gun control.”

Fiorina talked about standing up against abortion and about securing the border.

“With all due respect to Donald Trump he actually didn’t bring this up. … We’ve been talking about this for 25 years.”

It was a busy weekend in Iowa with eight candidates roaming for votes. Not present at the summit were Democrat Hillary Clinton — yes, she was invited, organizers said — and Republicans Chris Christie and Donald Trump.

Trump never officially declined his invitation, so organizers were braced for him to show up unexpectedly in between his publicized Iowa events. But he never did.

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