ATLANTA — Republican presidential candidates are getting a second chance to make a good first impression with conservative activists after their inaugural televised debates had unheard of millions tuning in to see how they would play off each other.
Unlike the Fox News debates that divided the 17-candidate field into two groups on crowded stages, the RedState Gathering in Atlanta offered several of those seeking the Republican nomination a half-hour all to themselves. On Saturday, the lineup includes former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Businessman Donald Trump had been on the program, but late Friday RedState's Erick Erickson said he was withdrawing his invitation because of a comment Trump made earlier that evening about Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly.
Referring to Kelly's questions during the debate, Trump told CNN, "There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever." In a statement on his RedState website, Erickson said: "I just don't want someone on stage who gets a hostile question from a lady and his first inclination is to imply it was hormonal."
Trump's campaign responded: "This is just another example of weakness through being politically correct. For all of the people who were looking forward to Mr. Trump coming, we will miss you. Blame Erick Erickson, your weak and pathetic leader."
Trump was leading in the polls going into the prime-time debate Thursday night and drew most of the attention before, during and after a program that drew a record 24 million viewers. Carly Fiorina, the former tech industry executive, came out of the late afternoon debate, watched by 6 million, with renewed interest in her campaign.
"Well, I don't know. I think we kind of rumbled last night. What do you think?" Fiorina said Friday to cheers from more than 1,000 people at the RedState Gathering. "I had a lot of fun last night."
Her rivals are hoping that the first debates mean a fresh look for them, too.
"Party donors, party leaders need to take a deep breath, put down the sharp objects, step away from the window," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said at RedState. "The voters will decide who our nominee is. They'll decide who the president is."
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry noted that he'd been relegated to the pre-debate debate for the seven candidates who failed to qualify for the main event. "I was up late last night," Perry said. "Not as late as I wanted to be."
But Perry campaigned as if he was one of the party's top-tier candidates, declaring that his 14 years as governor in Texas prove he's worthy of a promotion.
"It's important for our country to have this discussion about executive experience," Perry said, knocking President Barack Obama as "an inexperienced senator" who has "driven this country into a ditch."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also spoke Friday at RedState. Rubio was at ease with the crowd and recalled his first visit with the conservative activists in 2010, when he was a longshot Senate candidate in Florida.
"I was an underdog against (former Florida Gov.) Charlie Crist and I was trailing by 40 points in the polls," he said. "Now I'm here running for president."
Christie told the crowd that his leadership of a Democratic-leaning state makes him "battle tested for Washington." He fielded questions about how Southern conservatives can connect with his boisterous Jersey personality and said that Americans from all regions care about a sound economy, national security and individual liberty.
"Think about listening to this accent for eight years," he joked. "You'll just have to deal with the New Jersey thing. It will be fine. Don't worry about it."