“In Texas, gun control means hittin’ what you’re aimin’ at.”
— Sen. Ted Cruz

That reliable applause line was one of many that fired up an audience of more than 400 who came from around the country to hear, meet and question heroes of the conservative movement like Sen. Cruz, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and many less-known leaders. If the reaction from the faithful was any indication, most speakers hit what they were aiming’ at.

PJ Media, along with Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks and others, helped to sponsor the event, organized by Eric Erickson’s RedState.com. I attended the sessions, interviewed participants, and consumed Texas-sized portions of barbecue. It was a weekend full of laughter, enthusiasm, and serious discussion of issues and values.

It may sound antiquarian or naive, but the annual event shows that there are still a lot of people who harbor a deep love for this country, for her Constitution and for the values that make America great.

Jim Pinnell, a retired financial advisor from nearby Fairview, Texas, probably best summarized why folks spend the time and money to come to RedState Gathering:

“These people care,” Pinnell told me. “Many of us were former Republicans. I think deep down we’re all conservatives. We’re all Constitutional conservatives. We believe in this country. We believe in the rule of law and freedom. And these people preach it and live it.”

Of course, the speculation about the next presidential cycle never stops, and Red Staters had a rich menu of options set before them.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, evangelist of red state principles, enthused about the policies he claims make the big state great — a magnet for business, a factory for jobs, a farmland of opportunity and a refuge for anyone who relishes the sweet aroma of freedom.

Sen. Ted Cruz encouraged brow-beaten conservatives with the “seven victories” he says they’ve achieved.

Cruz, whose Cuban-born father fought in the revolution and was imprisoned and tortured before fleeing penniless to Texas in 1957, spoke eloquently of his personal visit to McAllen, Texas, a border town that has become a way-station for unaccompanied minors headed north. He said that young immigrants are flooding across our Southern border because they all believe they’ll get un permiso, and amnesty. It’s a lie that has cost untold lives. The House has passed legislation to block that practice, Cruz said, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refuses to let the Senate take up the measure for debate (along with 350-some other House-passed bills that languish in Senate Democrat purgatory).

“Let’s compare what we’ve got here,” Cruz said. “We’ve got one body — the Republicans in the House standing up and leading and trying to fix the [immigration] problem — and you have another body, Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats, engaged in naked obstruction. That clarifies it. Are we going to pass this legislation this year with Harry Reid? No. But the lines have been made very clear for voters in November.”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley made Red Staters remember what a chief executive officer looks like, as she laid out how Republican principles have become practice in the Palmetto State, resulting in more jobs, less unemployment, and a sapping away of job-killing labor union power. But perhaps her biggest challenge comes from within the party.

“I have a Republican House and a Republican Senate,” Haley said, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a Republican State. And I will tell you than I want a conservative House and a conservative Senate, and we’ve had to fight very hard for that.”

Red State’s “top of the batting order” was powerful, but the way Erick Erickson rounded out the line-up with rising stars engendered even greater hope, because conservatives could see that the bench is deep.

Texas Rep. Scott Turner, candidate for House speaker, turned the talk of his home state’s goodness toward a call to greatness, eschewing the complacency that can settle on a party which owns all of the statewide offices, and controls the legislature. I spoke with Turner one-on-one after his speech, specifically about education and healthcare, and noted his distinctive ability to speak without hackneyed buzzwords about the potential for greatness among inner-city kids now trapped in failing schools merely because they live in the wrong zip code.

“These kids have a mental capacity, literally, to change the world, if given the opportunity,” Turner told me. “I believe — because education was very important to me growing up — I believe that if we give these children and parents the opportunities to expand beyond just a zip code, that we will see a tremendous change in the education system. Because competition always [brings out] the best in everyone and everything.”

Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general seeking to succeed Perry as governor, noted that he’s the only candidate who truly has a “spine of steel.” He gets around in a wheelchair, three decades after a falling tree snapped his back. Surgeons implanted steel pins to put him back together, but it’s more than a metaphor for Abbott, who has sued the Obama administration some 30 times.

He started his platform remarks with taxes.

“The time has come to return tax dollars to taxpayers,” Abbott said, to vigorous applause. Texas already has no state income tax, and Abbott called for elimination of the business franchise tax.

He also turned a liberal rallying cry — “It’s for the children” — into an irrefutable common sense call for the protection of human life.

“In order for a child to have a chance IN life, he first must have a chance AT life,” Abbott said. It’s a strong message as he runs against the Planned Parenthood darling, Wendy Davis, facetiously called by some Red Staters, “Abortion Barbie.”

Konni Burton, candidate for Wendy Davis’ old state Senate seat, lives out the story of a grassroots activist who, by staying grounded, won double-digit victories in her primary and run-off elections. She urges the party to avoid nominating pretty faces with pretty phrases, but to look among the hard workers laboring in the trenches to find new candidates. Test their mettle, she seems to say, before you let them wear your mantle.

“I was from the grassroots,” Burton told me. “The minute I announced, the amount of support was phenomenal, because these were people that knew me. We had all been working together — good old fashioned boots-on-the-ground, knocking on doors, talking to neighbors about other candidates.”

Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine spoke with a sincerity grounded in principle, and informed by intense study,  about the threats that face our country…and the audience loved him for it.

Matt Kibbe, of FreedomWorks, encouraged the crowd of liberty-lovers that “there’s a lot more of us than there are of them,” and the “disintermediation” of news and information has brought that fact to the surface for all to see. He delivered a call to work together around shared values.

“I don’t really care what the brand is, but the values bind us together,” Kibbe said. “And by the way, those values didn’t come from Washington D.C., they didn’t come from FreedomWorks. To be honest with you, I stole them from your Mom, and she stole them from her Mom, who probably stole them from church on Sunday, right?

In the hallway, before his speech, I asked Kibbe if liberty-loving folks should feel obligated to back establishment Republicans who beat so-called Tea Party candidates in the primary.

“Well, it’s interesting, because historically in ’10 and ’12 and in ’14 it’s always been the establishment candidate that bolts the party when they lose the primary,” Kibbe said. “Lisa Murkowski did it in Alaska. Of course, Charlie Crist did it in Florida. Arlen Specter did it in Pennsylvania. So it does seem like there are two sets of rules, and we’re constantly being brow-beat to fall in line and support the Republican candidate. I suspect that in Mississippi, regardless of what you and I think, a lot of activists will not vote for Thad Cochran because of the tactics they used. It’s one thing to fight a tough primary, and I think we’ve always been willing to support a candidate that wins a fair primary, but that wasn’t fair. They stole it and they did it with some pretty underhanded tactics.”

A few days at RedState Gathering made at least one thing clear.

As conservatives continue to shift their financial allegiance from the Republican Party to candidates and independent PACs, the RNC and state GOP committees will have to adapt, either by marginalizing the conservatives and building a “moderate” base — an ill-advised move that could wind up marginalizing the party — or by staying out of the in-house debate (and the primaries) completely, to focus on fundraising, database management for nominees, and organizing the quadrennial convention event. The latter is a technocratic solution that ends in a party that’s a mere administrative back-shop for activists and candidates…not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s already a thriving cottage industry of private businesses that do it better.

Of course, there’s a third option: The RNC could embrace Republican principles, recruit freedom-loving Constitutional candidates, draw clear distinctions with Democrats, and thus rally a quiescent base yearning to hear the song of liberty again.

Last weekend in Ft. Worth, that song came to full-throated crescendo at RedState Gathering.