U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, says Chattanooga unfortunately has joined a group of U.S. cities that have been the victims of what he called radical Islamic terrorism.
And if he's made president in 2016, he would stop that trend, he said Monday.
Cruz, who is seeking the Republican nod in the 2016 presidential election, stood before a crowd of more than 800 Monday during a Tennessee campaign tour that started in Chattanooga.
Behind him were five flags, one for each of the five U.S. servicemen who were gunned down on July 16 after Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez attacked a military recruiting center and a Marine and Naval reserve center in Chattanooga.
Cruz said Monday the U.S. needs to change its foreign policy and rules of engagement for military to be able to properly defeat terrorist cells in the Middle East. He said airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, are not enough.
"It is all of our hopes and prayers that there are no more flags to represent the four Marines and one sailor," Cruz said. " And to the young radical that young radical will know, if you join ISIS, you are signing your death warrant."
Federal officials haven't ruled the Chattanooga shooting an act of terrorism, but legislators such as Cruz and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., have. The distinction is important for the families of the fallen, because it will determine how they are honored.
Fleischmann is pushing for a Congressional resolution that would award Purple Heart medals to Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith and U.S. Marines Carson Holmquist, Thomas Sullivan, Skip Wells and David Wyatt, who died in the attack. That resolution has 82 co-sponsors and has been sent to the House Armed Services Committee.
Before he took the stage Monday, Cruz said he was among the group of lawmakers that pushed to award Purple Hearts to the victims of a 2009 military base shooting at Fort Hood, in his home state of Texas.
Monday's event was held at GraceWorks Church, on Lee Highway. The rally was first planned to be at Republican headquarters, but Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West, who is also chairman of Cruz's campaign in Southeast Tennessee, said public interest quickly outgrew the space.
And minutes before Cruz arrived Monday, West was still moving chairs and trying to make more room.
"We really kind of exceeded the capacity of this auditorium , " West said during a phone interview after the event. "Ted Cruz is a very appealing candidate, not just to grassroots but many mainstream Republicans, as well."
During an event in Murfreesboro, Tenn., later Monday, Cruz filled a gymnasium and event staff eventually had to turn away supporters because of local safety codes, West said.
From there, Cruz went to Franklin, Jackson and into Mississippi today. He also plans to visit the Memphis area today, West said Monday.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini said in a statement Monday that Cruz "represents everything that is wrong with today's Republican Party."
"Instead of working to ensure that more Americans would be able to take their children to the doctor when they're sick, he instead tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act by shutting down of the federal government, costing the economy a staggering $24 billion," Mancini said.
The crowd in Chattanooga was very receptive to Cruz's message: to undo policies of President Barack Obama, de-politicize the U.S. Department of Justice, "rip to shreds" the current nuclear deal with Iran, establish a national flat tax system, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and a host of other initiatives.
Much to the crowd's delight, Cruz spent time criticizing "career politicians" and prided himself on not getting along with them.
"If you see a candidate Washington embraces, then run and hide," Cruz said.
Cruz's strategy appears to be to target mid-sized cities and energize local Republicans on their home turf. And that plan seems to be unfolding after Cruz picked up support after the first GOP presidential debate last week.
He said Monday that Tennessee would play a "critical role" in the primary.
Tennessee will be an early battleground after primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. So-called Super Tuesday is a mere 10 days after South Carolina's primary.
"Tennessee is going to play a critical role in the Republican presidential primary," Cruz told the crowd of supporters.
Supporters of presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders held signs at the entrance to the event supporting their candidate.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at firstname.lastname@example.org, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.